Disaster zone getting you down? Cockroach robots to the rescue!

9 Feb 2016

By studying the agility, flexibility and other down-right weird capabilities of the cockroach, researchers have developed a new robot that could help in disaster relief situations in future.

Called CRAM (Compressible Robot and Articulated Mechanisms), the new robot looks a bit like the torso of an armadillo but owes much of its movement to the inspirational cockroach.

CockroachThe CRAM robot, inspired by cockroaches, can crawl even when squashed to half its size – image via Tom Libby et al/UC Berkeley.

Obstacle courses

Berkley researchers put a bunch of cockroaches through multiple obstacle courses, testing their ability to walk under extreme pressure and through even the slightest of gaps.

It turns out that even if you squish a cockroach with a force 900-times their body weight, they just flatten out and carry on accordingly.

Having looked at multiple animals’ agility over the years, cockroaches were decided as the test bed after one of the researchers, Robert Full, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, noticed they can run on just two legs, and scoot by at five feet per second – that’s 50-times their body length per second.

When they were put through a course that was just 3mm in height they could still run at 20-times their body length per second. Their back, which looks like a hard shell, is actually a flexible structure and their legs, well, they are just remarkable.

Cockroach robotThe American cockroach doing its thing, via Tom Libby et al/UC Berkeley.

Game of squash

When squashed flat their feet splay out to the side, so they use the little spines on their legs.

When a cockroach 9mm tall approaches an opening one-third its height, it inspects with its antennae and then jams its head through the crack. It’s front legs then drag it through the gap in the blink of an eye.

It seems to be able to manipulate its body in a way only bettered by sea life.

So, creating a robot that can replicate this, squeeze through gaps and withstand heavy force, could be very helpful in disaster zones and search and rescue efforts.

A new dawn

Step forward CRAM, a palm-sized robot that can splay its legs outward when squashed, with a plastic, flexible, tough shield that can withstand all the pressure.

“In the event of an earthquake, first responders need to know if an area of rubble is stable and safe, but the challenge is, most robots can’t get into rubble,” said Full, whose work is published in PNAS.

“But if there are lots of cracks and vents and conduits, you can imagine just throwing a swarm of these robots in to locate survivors and safe entry points for first responders.”

CRAM isn’t ready for action just yet, though, with this prototype not nearly robust enough to go into action, “but it shows the feasibility of a new direction using what we think are the most effective models for soft robots, that is, animals with exoskeletons,” Full said.

“Insects are the most successful animals on Earth. Because they intrude nearly everywhere, we should look to them for inspiration as to how to make a robot that can do the same.”

Cockroach image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic