Versatile ‘cockroach’ robots to the rescue

According to one of the robot's creators, a swarm of the cockroach robots could locate people buried under debris.

According to one of the robot's creators, a swarm of the cockroach robots could locate people buried under debris.

Search and rescue missions of the future could be led by a horde of robot cockroaches, with United States researchers developing a mechanical version of the reviled insect to serve the whims of its human overlords.

A team at the University of California in Berkeley found that cockroaches, despite their reputation as unwanted vermin, are superbly adaptable creatures able to contort their bodies to fit into various small and awkward spaces.

By constructing a special obstacle course, the researchers found that an American cockroach could slip through a space smaller than a quarter of its standing body height in less than a second and withstand forces of around 900 times its own weight without sustaining injury. A cockroach is able to compress its exoskeleton to around half its original height to achieve these feats.

The cockroach could also move at 20 body lengths a second and use a little understood form of locomotion called “body-friction-legged crawling” when moving in cramped and confined spaces.

Inspired by the cockroach, Kaushik Jayaram and Robert Full have constructed a robot that can also compress itself by more than half its height to fit through narrow spaces, aided by a low-friction shell.

The robot, dubbed Cram, is about the size of a person’s palm and is being earmarked for a range of uses, such as finding people buried under rubble after earthquakes or other disasters. Its development has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“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.”

Full said the cockroach robot will be fitted with sensors before it is deployed. There is commercial interest in the idea, although no company has yet taken it up.

The robot, which has a shell made from a laser-cut cardboard-like substance, is a further advance in an area of robotics that has already dragooned cockroaches for human use. Engineers in Texas have used live cockroaches with computers wired into the animal’s nervous system. A human operator is able to control the direction of the cockroach’s scuttle with a push of a button.

“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.” – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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