If you were trapped beneath a pile of rubble, a large robotic cockroach might be the last thing you'd hope to see scrabbling toward you. However, two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, seem to think that such a contraption could be the ideal way to reach survivors buried under debris.
Robert Full, a professor at Berkeley, and one of his graduate students, Kaushik Jayaram, took inspiration from the remarkably squishable and resilient cockroach to develop a robot version with an exoskeleton that allows it be compressed to less than half its height in order to wriggle through confined spaces.
In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Full and Jayaram show how a cockroach is able to squeeze its body into tight spaces and still keep moving, thanks to an exoskeleton made of soft materials. They conducted a series of experiments that involved compressing real cockroaches and observing the forces placed on them.
The researchers then built a device, which Full and Jayaram call a compressible robot with articulated mechanisms (CRAM), from several folding exoskeleton-like plates. They speculate that its malleability and strength could make it ideal for exploring collapsed buildings.
It’s a cool experiment that also points to a significant and newish trend in robotics. Many researchers and a few companies are becoming interested in soft or malleable robot designs for the various physical advantages they can offer.
Firms including Soft Robotics and Empire Robotics already sell soft grippers designed to make it easier for robots to manipulate objects without requiring extreme precision. Exoskeletons might offer another way to make robots that can change shape while still retaining their strength.
So next time you try in vain to crush a cockroach beneath your shoe, perhaps take a moment to marvel at its incredible design, and consider its potential applications.