Someday, a cockroach could save lives in natural disasters

A Creepy Crawly Cockroach Robot Could Save Your Life Someday During Natural Disasters

No one wants to see the sneaky, indestructible, and disgusting cockroach anywhere in their house. But someday, people trapped in rubble after a natural disaster may be very happy to see the nasty little bug crawling towards them.

Of course, in that future, it won’t be an actual cockroach that comes to the rescue, but its robot imitation, built to crawl through tight spaces with all the agility and speed of the real thing.

Researchers at UC Berkeley have spent a lot of time with the American cockroach lately, testing its remarkable ability to squeeze almost invisibly through extremely narrow spaces, survive massive amounts of pressure, and scamper at remarkable speeds, the Los Angeles Times reported.

No one would spend this much time with the foul insect if they didn’t have a good reason, and in this case, the experiments were meant to study the roach’s behaviors with the goal of recreating them in a robot.

And researchers have already done it, building a palm-sized version that they hope to eventually shrink down to real life size and test in simulations of the dangerous rubble created after a disaster, the Associated Press added.

In other words, nature’s most disgusting creature is being harnessed to save human lives in a disaster. Despite that, co-author and Harvard robotics researcher Kaushik Jayaram is “still creeped out by them.”

“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.”

The cockroach and its robot counterpart have some remarkable abilities, which the researchers witnessed in their experiments (and don’t worry, none of the bugs were harmed).

It can run down tunnels 12 millimeters to a seemingly-impossible four millimeters high. The smooshed bug didn’t lose speed until the narrowest tunnel, running while “compressed in half” at an equivalent of 70 miles an hour for a human being, said study co-author and biomechanist Robert Full.

When the insect isn’t being compressed, it can run 50 body lengths a second, or 140 mph. The cockroach can also survive being crushed by something 900 times their body weight; the equivalent in a human being is 90 tons stacked on the head.

The bug uses something called “body-friction legged crawling” to crawl in tight spaces, using their belly and legs to keep them moving.

These abilities are also made possible by an origami-esque exoskeleton composed of rigid plates, which are connected to each other with flexible tissue that allows the cockroach to flatten without being hurt, the Christian Science Monitor explained.

A prototype of the disaster robot (called the Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms, or CRAM) is 20 times bigger than the real thing and works in about the same way. Jayaram built it by combining some origami skills with off-the -shelf electronics and motors, cardboard, and polyester. The robot’s exoskeleton is made of flexible plastic and can shimmy through narrow spaces just like a real cockroach, using the same friction technique.

Someday, this creepy robot could help rescue people in a disaster and could be pretty cheap at $10 a bug. The idea is that a swarm of the robots could be deployed in a disaster zone, where they’ll squeeze through cracks in search of survivors, or test out an area for safety before human rescuers enter.

The technology is in its infancy, and so the robobugs aren’t ready to be deployed just yet. The robot is still palm-sized, it can only simulate one cockroach behavior (out of up to nine it uses to get through crevices), and so far, researchers don’t know how they’ll control the robots when they’re put in real disaster situations. But Full remains hopeful.

“You never know where fundamental, basic research will lead. Something that is one of nature’s most revolting animals can teach us design principles that could some day lead to a robot that could save your child in an earthquake.”

[Image via smuay/Shutterstock]