Bug hero? Scientists take inspiration from cockroaches to build rescue robots

Cockroaches are nasty and annoying, but you’ve gotta hand it to them – if there’s something they’re really good at, it’s surviving. Now, a group of scientists want to develop a fleet of cockroach-inspired robots to mimic their strength, agility and resilience.

Full, 2016.

There are more than 4,000 species of cockroaches worldwide. They can breathe through through little holes in each of their body segments, they can run up to three miles an hour and withstand 900 times their body weight without being hurt. That’s the equivalent of an average man not being hurt by 80 tons. Naturally, these abilities would come in handy in dealing with rescue scenarios. Robert Full, co-author of a study about the prototype cockroach robot is not a fan of cockroaches, but wants to learn from them.

“I think they’re really disgusting and really revolting, but they always tell us something new.”

The prototype he created is called the Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms, or CRAM. It’s 20 times bigger than the roaches that inspired it, and looks more like an armadillo than an insect; but the properties are still there. It can move at 20 body lengths a second, using  little understood form of locomotion called “body-friction-legged crawling”. This type of movement is enabled by their jointed exoskeletons.

“Jointed exoskeletons permit rapid appendage-driven locomotion but retain the soft-bodied, shape-changing ability to explore confined environments,” the study reads.

The way these robots would help is very simple yet important. In the case of an earthquake or any other disaster that leaves behind lots of rubble, a fleet of roach robots would go in the rubble and search for survivors, learning their location and perhaps even helping. The fact that they could squeeze in these spaces with ease and survive additional crashing makes them ideal for this task. To make things even better, the prototype was really cheap. Everything put together, it cost about $100, and if mass produced, the costs could go as low as $10.

“We need low-cost robots as first responders and we feel this is really the best model,” Full said. “It has an origami-like exoskeleton, it can go into tiny spaces and keep moving. A swarm of these cockroach robots could locate people buried under debris.

“Animals that are soft, such as worms and slugs, are masters of shape-changing whereas arthropods, such as spiders and insects, take advantage of their rigid exoskeletons to run and jump. But cockroaches can go anywhere, they can slip through cracks and crevices.”

The cockroach is part of a new generation of robots called soft robots. Soft robots are made from elastic and flexible materials which allows them to mold to the environment, just like the biological counterparts. Such machines can stretch, twist, scrunch and squish, change shape or size, wrap around objects and perform tasks impossible by rigid robotics standards.

“It’s about doing something beyond just running with two legs on the ground,” Full said, “The big picture is wonderful, this is just the beginning. You can use these robots for structural inspections, search and rescue, security, environmental monitoring, you name it. The next generation of robots is very exciting because we can build a prototype in a day rather than months or years and start testing it.”

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