Scientists Look to Cockroaches to Build Better Crawling and Climbing Robots

A team from University of California at Berkeley have developed a robot that can operate and crawl in a space built for half its size.

Cockroaches rarely conjure up warm, inspiring feelings of innovation. However, the seemingly indestructible insect has inspired robotics engineers to attempt to duplicate its form. 

When put into stressful situations, cockroaches can squeeze themselves into spaces just a tenth of an inch (or only a few millimeters). Once inside that gap, they can continue to safely operate and even run at high speeds.

A team from University of California at Berkeley wants to harness that body build and create robots that duplicate that level of flexibility.  

“What’s impressive about these cockroaches is that they can run as fast through a quarter-inch gap as a half-inch gap, by reorienting their legs completely out to the side,” said study leader Kaushik Jayaram.

Jayaram also recently earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. He said, “They’re about half an inch tall when they run freely, but can squish their bodies to one-tenth of an inch — the height of two stacked pennies.”

Robots for search-and-rescue operations

Robotics engineers have been working for years on perfecting robots meant for search-and-rescue operations. More particularly, engineers want robots that can safely squeeze through rubble after events like earthquakes.

The initial responses have trended toward soft robotics -- making robots flexible enough like snakes that could just slither and squeeze through a spot. The UC Berkeley team decided to take a very different approach. 

“In the event of an earthquake, first responders need to know if an area of rubble is stable and safe, but the challenge is, most robots can’t get into rubble,” said Robert Full, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “But if there are lots of cracks and vents and conduits, you can imagine just throwing a swarm of these robots in to locate survivors and safe entry points for first responders.”

A swarm of these style robots would certainly pack a powerful punch in helping find what's buried under rubble. The American cockroach can withstand forces of 900 times their body weight, according to the study. 

“Insects are the most successful animals on earth. Because they intrude nearly everywhere, we should look to them for inspiration as to how to make a robot that can do the same.”

“This is only a prototype, but it shows the feasibility of a new direction using what we think are the most effective models for soft robots, that is, animals with exoskeletons,” Full said. “Insects are the most successful animals on earth. Because they intrude nearly everywhere, we should look to them for inspiration as to how to make a robot that can do the same.”

Full and his team from the PolyPEDAL group have watched animals to figure out which natural biomedical best practices align more for robots' functionality. 

Whenever a cockroach is smushed, they can't technically use their 'feet.' So, American cockroaches use 'sensory spines' on their tibia to move forward despite the tight squeezes. 

“They have to use different body parts to move in these spaces, because their legs and feet are not oriented to work properly,” Jayaram said. “But they are still capable of generating the large forces necessary for locomotion, which blew my mind.”

Scientists Look to Cockroaches to Build Better Crawling and Climbing Robots
Source: Tom Libby, Kaushik Jayaram and Pauline Jennings/PolyPEDAL Lab/UC Berkeley

Currently, the research team is testing out various other parts of a cockroach's anatomy in order to figure out how to implement those into robotics.