Cockroaches boast some of the most impressive survival traits in the animal kingdom. They can hold their breath for 40 minutes, their flexible carapaces allow them to squeeze into tiny areas while still being strong enough to survive pressure that would crush most animals, and they can even live for a week without a head! Over the past few years, researchers have been using the cockroach as a model for rescue drones that can maneuver through the rubble of collapsed structures in order to find survivors. After locating survivors, these rescue roaches transmit the coordinates to emergency responders. If successful, the cockroaches will save the lives of many victims of structural collapses, as well as keeping first responders out of unnecessary danger.
Researchers are taking a lot of different approaches to the rescue roach, but there are two that stand out. Professor Robert Full and his team at UC Berkeley are designing robotic cockroaches whose carapaces are strong and flexible. They can also crawl very fast even in tight spaces. Last year, Hong Liang and her team at Texas A&M fitted cockroaches with little backpacks carrying cameras and other sensors. Both teams seek to harness the ingenuity of the cockroach, but each approach has its strengths and limitations.
UC Berkeley recently released a video on their Youtube channel describing the project.
Is there anything cockroaches can't do?
UC Berkeley's team has named their prototype CRAM, an acronym for Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms. Like a cockroach, CRAM can squeeze into areas less than half its height and still maintain full movement speed. This is achieved by using different parts of their legs to propel themselves depending on what position they're in. CRAM still has a way long to go before it can manage feats like squeezing into crevices that are 1/10th of an inch, but the prototype's test results show promise. Professor Full expanded on his inspiration for CRAM in an interview UC Berkeley's News Publication:
“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... 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.”
Professor Full and his team at the Poly-PEDAL Lab at UC Berkeley will continue their work, studying the motions of the animal kingdom in order to improve robotics. Before CRAM, Professor Hong Liang and her team at Texas A&M took a more direct approach. Instead of trying to make a cockroach robot, why not use an actual cockroach? The team fitted cockroaches with cameras, microphones, and sensors, but the most intriguing feature is remote control. These cockroaches can be controlled by remote, to an extent. The control mechanism sends signals to the nerves that control the legs on both sides of the cockroach, influencing which direction they crawl. Professor Liang spoke about her idea for the project in an interview with The Guardian last year:
“Insects can do things a robot cannot. They can go into small places, sense the environment, and if there’s movement, from a predator say, they can escape much better than a system designed by a human... We wanted to find ways to work with them.”
This photograph shows Professor Liang's cockroaches with the camera, sensors, and control mechanism on its back.
These bionic cockroaches are not without their own limitations, mainly, the controls aren't very reliable. The controls can influence which direction the cockroach crawls, but has little control beyond that. If a cockroach decides that it would rather look for food than survivors in a collapsed building, they might just take off with the camera equipment never to be seen again. There's also an ethical dilemma when talking about remote controlling live creatures, even if it is in the interest of saving human lives.
Although both teams have taken different approaches, they do both agree on the durability and ingenuity of the cockroach. By employing the motor functions of insects to make unconventional robots, they just might succeed in saving thousands of lives.