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Why scientists are building robots that act like giant cockroaches

Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley use nature-inspired technology to transform search-and-rescue operations.

Cockroach robot walks through narrow gap

Scientists face several challenges when making search-and-rescue robots, particularly when it comes to maneuverability in uneven terrain. Their solution: make bots that act like cockroaches.

As one of nature’s most resilient animals, cockroaches have well-adapted survival skills including an ability to survive in extreme temperature ranges. While the rumors that they can survive a nuclear blast are untrue, they can survive for days after being decapitated, and have an incredible ability to maneuver in tight spaces. They can even live without food for a month.

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A research team led by postdoctoral researcher Chen Li at the University of California at Berkeley began to study these hardy insects by filming their movements in dense, cluttered spaces. The team studied the Blaberus discoidalis roach, which resides in jungle-like settings in Florida and around the Caribbean including in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

The scientists found that one of the most useful features of the roach was the shape of their shell. The rounded, ellipsoidal shape allowed for the roaches to slide through tight spaces and tumble through obstacles. The team concluded that this shell shape could be advantageous to a robot entering the unknown and often risky terrain of rescue operations. 

Robots programmed to avoid obstacles have been built in the past, but this robot represents a more unique approach: a robot designed to traverse them.

This is not the first time that roaches have appeared in a robotics lab.

Less than one month ago, a roach-bird-robot team was developed at UC Berkeley in order to capitalize on the agility of the robot and the flight capability of the bird. The cockroach part of the team, VelociRoACH, acts as a ramp to launch the robotic bird, H2Bird, into flight. 

And anyone who’s tried to catch a cockroach before knows how quickly they can disappear. Scientists studying this phenomenon found that the roaches would hang from a ledge using its limbs as grappling-hooks in order to remain hidden from sight. In 2012, they were able to create a robot that could imitate this capability.  

But why not just use live bugs in search and rescue operations? Earlier this year, researchers from North Carolina State University did just that, equipping live cockroaches with microphones and trackers and controlling their movements with electrodes implanted in their brains.

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This latest addition to the robo-roach community, protected by a cockroach-shaped shell, adds to the growing interface between biology and robotics. The team’s findings are now available in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.