Cockroach-Inspired Robot First-Responders and Spies

Imagine a massive earthquake. The ground has buckled mightily, sending buildings and bridges tumbling. Amid the wreckage, human beings await rescue, from humans or dogs.

But what if the collapsed structure is too dangerous to risk human or canine life? How are rescuers to identify the location of survivors in time to save their lives?

Enter the cockroach robot.

Cockroaches are masters at navigating the minutest nooks and crannies. They are aptly built to squeeze through the tiniest of openings, their armor-clad carapaces jointed for flattening and twisting in seemingly impossible ways. It’s almost impossible to keep them out of the home once they are in the foundation. But it this frustrating nasty fact that has made them the perfect model for scientists of robotic development at the University of California Berkeley. (from

cockroach1CRAM, the cockroach-inspired robot that can keep moving even when squished to half its size. (Credit: Tom Libby, Kaushik Jayaram and Pauline Jennings – courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab, UC Berkeley)

Cockroaches might be repulsive to those who fear germs and creepy-crawly creatures, but there’s no doubt they’re impressive examples of animal evolution. In addition to finding that the critters can carry the equivalent of 900 times their body weight on their backs, the UC Berkeley team also found that, even when squashed down to one-quarter their size, they can still run remarkably fast.

“What’s impressive about these cockroaches is that they can run as fast through a quarter-inch (6 mm) gap as a half-inch (12 mm) gap, by reorienting their legs completely out to the side,” says Kaushik Jayaram, the leader of the study. “They’re about half an inch tall when they run freely, but can squish their bodies to one-tenth of an inch (2.5 mm) — the height of two stacked pennies.”

To develop their robot CRAM, which stands for “compressible robot with articulated mechanisms,” Jayaram first filmed the roaches using a high-speed camera. Slow-motion viewing showed him that when roaches flatten themselves out to fit through narrow cracks, they can no longer use their feet to propel themselves. Rather, they use the sensory spines on the bottom part of their legs (their tibias) to move forward. This is similar to how, if you were walking on all fours, you’d need to get down on your elbows and use your forearms to pull you through a tight space.

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

The CRAM robot uses this technique and, while it can’t quite flatten out to the degree the roach can, it is capable of being squished down to half its size while still maintaining forward locomotion. The robot was capped with a plastic shield that was capable of being deformed under pressure, which mimics the roach’s exoskeleton, something Jayaram found could smoothly slide past a variety of surfaces, including sandpaper.

The researchers believe robots similar to CRAM could one day help in disaster rescue efforts, such as finding survivors in the aftermath of an earthquake.

“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,” says 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.”

Espionage: A New Kind of ‘Bug’?

Meanwhile, Russian scientists from the Kaliningrad-based Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University have presented a prototype of a 100-percent machine cockroach robot that they have developed for a company whose name hasn’t been disclosed.

The university’s website says the company’s requirements for the project were clear: they wanted the robot to look like an existing cockroach, act like one, and be the right size.

“Berkeley University has been working on their cockroach for the past four years, but they didn’t have to make it look like an insect, so it’s faster than ours. But it can’t turn at speed and it doesn’t look like a real cockroach at all. Whereas we were specifically told to create a cockroach robot on time and on budget,” the project’s head engineer, Aleksey Belousov, explains.


I would guess if it is to be used for spying, such attention to detail would be vital.

The robot is about 10cm long, moves with a speed of up to 30cm per second (one-third the speed of a real cockroach), is equipped with light sensors, contact and non-contact probes that allow it to move without bumping into things.

So far it can work autonomously for 20 minutes, but the scientists plan to stretch that time. Eventually, the robot will also get its own navigation system to allow users to program its route.


Researchers also promise to produce a camo version next week especially for the Russian military, which has already expressed interest in the robot because it can carry a weight of up to 10 grams and could potentially carry portable cameras into enclosed spaces.

The possibilities are limitless, especially of such bugs are glued to the inside of paper shopping bags. Ever had roaches get into your house in shopping bags? Neat way to infiltrate, and almost impossible to prevent.


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