Even though they're creepy in real life, the American cockroach has inspired robot that could one day save countless lives.
You may not think cockroaches are useful, but a team of Berkeley scientists has learned a surprising amount from the little critters. According to a report from the Washington Post, a recent paper from biomechanics expert Robert Full outlines the numerous ways in which we can draw inspiration from a cockroach’s anatomy to create a brand new search and rescue robot.
The paper was published this Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Full and his colleagues show how the soft bodies, resilient exoskeletons and exceptional mobility of the American cockroach could be put to use saving people’s lives instead of simply creeping them out.
“We are not entomologists,” Full said. “We also think they’re disgusting, but they can teach us bigger principles.”
Cockroaches are the only species touted as being nearly indestructible – they can survive being stomped on, smashed with a rolled up magazine, and can move through the tiniest openings and corridors with ease. While the bugs may be the stuff of nightmares, they may also hold the key to the perfect search and rescue machine.
Scientists took a collection of American cockroaches, or Pireplaneta americana, and squeezed them through smaller and smaller tunnels to see when they would get stuck. Even on the smallest tunnel, with a diameter of just four millimeters, the roaches had quite an easy time zipping along.
Researchers found that the secret behind the cockroach’s ability to withstand such pressure lies in its exoskeleton. The roach can collapse its exoskeleton to a quarter of its normal height in less than a second, and the bugs can continue to move as they downsize.
Roaches are also extremely fast – they can travel the same distance as their body in just 1/50th of a second, the human equivalent of running 140 miles per hour. They can withstand up to 300 times their own body weight crushing down without even slowing their roll, and won’t die before being crushed by at least 900 times their body weight.
Full and his research team have designed a prototype roach-bot, which they hope to outfit with sensors and send into fallen structures, landslides, and collapsed mines to help locate buried people. If they can make a robot with the same capabilities as an actual cockroach, they may be able to save countless lives.
A press release from Berkeley describing the details of the study can be found here.