Compressible rescue robot takes cue from cockroaches

Nobody likes a roach scuttling across the floor – but incredible new research may have proved the creepy insect more useful than we thought. Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley have been studying the so-called “compressibility” of cockroaches and used the knowledge to design new technology.

They found the insects had the ability to reduce their body height by up to a quarter to squeeze through the narrowest gaps in doors or floorboards. The findings have inspired a new robot designed to reduce its size to reach inaccessible places.

The prototype has been named the Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms – or CRAM for short – and can reduce its size drastically to get through small cracks. With a softer outer shell and jointed exoskeleton, the fist-sized robot mimics the cockroach’s ability to shift shape and withstand high pressure.

Scientists found that cockroaches can withstand forces up to 300 times their body weight when navigating cracks, and can endure forces of 900 times without suffering injury. It was found the American cockroachPeriplaneta americana – can run at top speed through tiny spaces with its body reduced down to the height of two stacked pennies. They do this by “completely reorientating” their legs out to the side.

Kaushik Jayaram, the study leader, designed a simple and “cheap” robot that can spread its legs out under pressure and withstand greater forces on its flexible outer shell. The design could have radical implications for search and rescue technology – particularly when it comes to finding survivors trapped under buildings.

Report co-author Robert Hull, professor of integrative biology at Berkeley, talked about just how much we can learn from cockroaches and their particular set of creepy skills: “they seem to be able to go anywhere,” he said. Mr Jayaram estimated the cost of the new prototype robot at just $100.