UC Berkeley researchers build robots to aid search and rescue operations

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UC Berkeley researchers from the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab have created small, quick-footed robots in an effort to transform search and rescue operations.

The robots, based on the movement of insects and lizards in the wild, were presented by UC Berkeley graduate students Duncan Haldane and Nick Kohut at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology held in San Francisco earlier this month.

Haldane presented his VelociRoACH robot, modeled on the movements of cockroaches, while Kohut presented the TAYLRoACH, which uses a tail that helps it make quick turns.

The robots have been in development since January 2011. The VelociRoACH was funded by the National Science Foundation and the TAYLRoACH was funded by the U.S. Army.

Their purpose is to help aid in search and rescue operations where larger robots and humans are unable to go, according to Kohut.

“Say there’s an earthquake, a building collapse — you got all this rubble, and people can’t get in,” Kohut said. “You can send a thousand of these into the rubble and maybe equip them with CO2 censors, and they can find people.”

The robots are some of the fastest in the world for their size, largely due to their stiff legs.

The TAYLRoACH has a very small turning radius, about four centimeters, and can turn while it is running without needing to slow down. The tail itself is made out of a carbon fiber rod with steel pins at the end to provide weight.

Kohut explained that the addition of a tail was inspired in part by observations made by a UC Berkeley integrative biology professor who hypothesized that certain animals use their tails to turn.

“The tail moves very quickly to one side and, due to an exchange of angular momentum, the body has to move to the other side,” Kohut said.  “So that produces a rapid turn.”

While a lot of traditional robots are made of metal, these smaller ones are made out of a cardboard polymer composite, as such a material has a good strength-to-weight ratio. With these materials, they are able to make all different kinds of structures, as they have a large design space.

“It’s all made through planar processing, so we have this flat material and we had these joints, and once you butt all these joints together, you start forming a structure,” Kohut said. “We then put in stiffeners, and you build up the whole structure — you can make very complex structures.”

Haldane designed the body of the robots while Kohut designed the tail for the TAYLRoACH. Andrew Pullin, another UC Berkeley graduate student at the lab, provided software support.

Showing robots at a biology conference is fairly new, Haldane noted.

“For the first time you can use a robot to answer enough biology questions that you can actually have a session (at a biology conference),” he said.


Andy Nguyen is the lead crime reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the VelociRoACH received funding from the US Army Lab. In fact, it received funding from the National Science Foundation. The TAYLRoACH robot was the robot that received funding from the US Army.

The article also misquoted researcher Duncan Haldene as saying “For the first time, you (can) use a robot to answer biology questions.”