Robo-roach takes search & rescue tips from maligned pest

Cockroaches may not sound the most likely of search & rescue heroes, but robots borrowing the pests' ability to squeeze through the tiniest cracks might revolutionize post-disaster triaging. Researchers at the PolyPEDAL Lab at UC Berkeley are taking the roaches as inspiration, cooking up prototype rescue-bots that can compress their bodies down without impeding their ability to move.

That's a combination that cockroaches have perfected over the years, and which sets them aside from other insects and animals. While reducing body height isn't unusual – mice, for instance, can flatten themselves significantly – the researchers found that even when squeezing down to fit through a 1/10-inch crack, a roach can still scuttle at high speed.

To do that, they physically reorient their legs so that they're sticking out the side of their bodies, rather than underneath.

"They're about half an inch tall when they run freely, but can squish their bodies to one-tenth of an inch," study leader Kaushik Jayaram explains, "the height of two stacked pennies."

Even when collapsed down, however, they're not significantly weakened. In fact, they're still able to hold up to forces 900 times their own weight, without sustaining any injury.

That has intriguing applications for a robot designed to go exploring in disaster zones, the UC Berkley team realized, and so the group set to work creating a prototype robo-roach.

Though far larger than a cockroach, the CRAM – or compressible robot with articulated mechanisms – follows the insect's body layout closely. About the size of a palm, it has a segmented plastic upper body that covers an array of legs that can splay out when the whole thing is compressed.

Together, they allow the robot to get through gaps just half its regular height.

The goal is to make CRAM possibly the first cockroach anybody is pleased to see, by setting it loose into potentially treacherous environments. In the aftermath of an earthquake, for instance, or a terrorist explosion, CRAM could crawl where no other would be capable of reaching.

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Feeding information back to a remote control center, positioned well clear of the unstable terrain, the robo-roach could help identify people trapped, gas leaks, or other high-importance items that first responders would want to know about.

Next on the agenda is to refine the prototype into something that might be able to head out into the wild, rather than the jury-rigged version – built using a robotics kit targeted at STEM – that the lab used as proof of concept.