Snug as a bug: the hated cockroach inspires a helpful robot

Mon Feb 8, 2016 4:15pm EST
 
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People use a lot of words to describe the reviled cockroach: disgusting, ugly, sneaky and repulsive, to name a few. But it may be time to add a surprising new one: inspirational.

Scientists said on Monday they have built a small search-and-rescue robot, inspired by the ability of cockroaches to squeeze through tiny crevices, designed to navigate through rubble to find survivors after natural disasters or bombings.

"We feel strongly that cockroaches are one of nature's most revolting animals, but they can teach us important design principles," University of California, Berkeley integrative biology professor Robert Full said.

Using a specially built obstacle course, the researchers observed how cockroaches scurried in less than a second through crevices smaller than a quarter of their height by compressing their jointed exoskeletons in half.

Once inside the crevice, the cockroaches managed to move rapidly, at nearly 20 body lengths per second, with their legs splayed completely out to their sides.

"If you scale it up to the size of a human, it would be equivalent to about 70 miles per hour (113 kph), over twice the speed of the fastest sprinter," said Harvard University biologist Kaushik Jayaram, who worked on the research while at UC-Berkeley.

The researchers said the cockroaches were about a half inch (13 mm) tall when they ran freely, but compressed their bodies to about a 10th of an inch (2.5 mm) to get through cracks.

Experts have been studying animal locomotion in order to invent robots that can maneuver in tough environments. For example, sidewinder rattlesnakes inspired a serpentine robot.   Continued...

 
Three cockroaches squeeze though a 3mm crevice under a room door at different stages of traversal, in this undated handout photo courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab, UC Berkeley. Scientists said on Monday they have built a prototype search-and-rescue robot, inspired by the ability of cockroaches to squeeze through tiny crevices, designed to navigate through rubble to find survivors after natural disasters or bombings. REUTERS/Tom Libby,