Two words: Cockroach robot This photo provided by PolyPEDAL Lab UC Berkeley, shows the compressible robot, CRAM with a real cockroach. (PolyPEDAL Lab UC Berkeley/Tom Libby, Kaushik Jayaram and Pauline Jennings via AP/Thinkstock)
Two words: Cockroach robot
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When buildings collapse in future disasters, the hero helping rescue trapped people may be a robotic cockroach.
 
Repulsive as they may be, roaches have the remarkable ability to squish their bodies down to one quarter their normal size, yet still scamper at lightning speed. Also, they can withstand 900 times their body weight without being hurt. That's equivalent to a 200-pound man who wouldn't be crushed by 90 tons on his head.
 
The amazing cockroach inspired scientists to create a mini-robot that can mimic those feats of strength and agility.
 
The researchers hope swarms of future roach-like robots could be fitted with cameras, microphones and other sensors and then used in earthquakes and other disasters to help search for victims by squeezing through small cracks. The skittering robots could also let rescuers know if the rubble pile is stable.
 
Cockroaches "seem to be able to go anywhere," said University of California at Berkeley biology professor Robert Full, co-author of a study about the prototype cockroach robot. "I think they're really disgusting and really revolting, but they always tell us something new."
 
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
 
The palm-size prototype, called the Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms, or CRAM, looks more like an armadillo and walks sort of like Charlie Chaplin when it's compressed. It's about 20 times the size of the roach that inspired it. And it's simple and cheap.
 
Co-author Kaushik Jayaram, a Harvard robotics researcher, said the most difficult part was the design, but after that he used off-the-shelf electronics and motors, cardboard, polyester and some knowledge of origami. He could probably put one together in about half an hour, he estimated.
 
All told, the prototype probably cost less than $100, Jayaram said. He figures if mass-produced, with sensors and other equipment added on, the robots could eventually cost less than $10 apiece.
 
In the past, when engineers looked at trying to create robots that could get into tight places, they thought about shape-changing soft animals like worms, slugs or octopuses, Full said. But the cockroach, which already is studied by roboticists for other abilities, has certain advantages, including crush-resistance and speed.
 
With nothing in its way, the American cockroach can travel 50 body lengths in a second, which would be the equivalent of a human running more than 140 mph, Full said. When compressed, the cockroach slows to 20 body lengths per second, which is still pretty fast.
 
Full and colleagues found roaches used a newly identified type of locomotion to ooze through cracks and crevices based on the ideal amount of belly friction.
 
Cockroaches have inspired other robots, including ones that travel on six legs to get over debris more easily, said Johns Hopkins University mechanical engineering professor Noah Cowan, who wasn't part of the study. He said cockroaches and insects in general are great design guides for roboticists to borrow from.
 
"There's definitely a case for machines that can go into environments that are not safe for humans to go into," Cowan said.
 
Still, the robot designers have no love for the bug that inspired them.
 
"I'm still creeped out by them," Jayaram said. "I don't want them in my house. I don't want them in my kitchen. That hasn't changed. But we can learn a lot of interesting things from even the most disgusting animals."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did researchers use a cockroach as their model?
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COMMENTS (33)
  • ethanb5-pla
    2/17/2016 - 12:59 a.m.

    It's quite amazing how such an intelligent idea could be formed revolving around the despised cockroach. The idea seems very viable and producing these in mass numbers wouldn't be too difficult with the high cockroach population. Not only would this idea be simple, but it would be life changing. The idea of having speedy, durable, little critters that could help track down lost victims is truly fascinating. And then to think if cockroaches could do this much, who knows maybe the C.I.A will hire them as spies. This reminds me of the movie G-Force, where the guinea pigs are manipulated by humans for the better good of our race to perform tasks that no human could do without the help of these animals.

  • kendallk-pla
    2/22/2016 - 10:19 a.m.

    This article is about a group of researchers who have decided to create a small robot modeled after a cockroach in order to track down people in times of disaster using cameras or other sensors. This small robot will be larger than the model insect, but it will be able to move over 140 mph and cost less than $100. They were inspired by cockroaches to make the robot crush-resistant. This relates to civic engagement because these researchers have chosen to invent technology in order to help people tragic situations. Their small invention should be able to help in big ways - by saving lives when many are at stake. Caring about the people around you and using your own skills to help them is the best example of civic engagement.

  • adamc-vau
    2/22/2016 - 11:58 a.m.

    I never thought of using such a disgusting bug such as the cockroach. It's fascinating how they made this. This would be something I would like to do in the future.

  • gavrand-vau
    2/22/2016 - 03:14 p.m.

    This robot could really help in collapsed buildings, and in some caves as well. It would let us know where a person is, making it easier to get to them.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    2/22/2016 - 08:46 p.m.

    Cockroaches are gross. Its great that they are using these disgusting things for such amazing possibilities. I just think they should have gone with a less creepy insect.

  • bellas-vau
    2/22/2016 - 09:43 p.m.

    The cockroach is a very intelligent, small, fast, and strong creature. Scientists can attach a camera to the bug. They can also produce them for 10 dollars a piece.

  • dylanj-kut
    2/23/2016 - 09:49 a.m.

    This is a very intelligent idea, and the fact that is has most features as an actual cockroach is remarkable. I would think some people would be scared of the robot but as it's saving them from a crumbling building, that would be one of their smaller problems. Especially since it's cheap to produce this is a great idea for saving lives and collecting information.

  • sophiec-vau
    2/23/2016 - 01:56 p.m.

    it is a small insect with a sturdy structure

  • emilyb-vau
    2/23/2016 - 02:04 p.m.

    Researchers used a cockroach because it is small, strong, and fast.

  • danielled-vau
    2/23/2016 - 03:25 p.m.

    Researchers used a cockroach as their model because they are fast, strong, and can squish their bodies down to a quarter their normal size. They think that because of all those things their model would be very helpful and useful to use in natural disasters to search for victims that are trapped and hard to get to in buildings.

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