UC Berkeley researchers develop cockroach-inspired, flexible robot

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

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A team of UC Berkeley researchers has turned to the quick and dirty cockroach to develop a fast and potentially life-saving robot.

The palm-sized, compressible robot with articulated mechanisms, or CRAM, was inspired by the American cockroach’s shape-changing qualities that allow it to squeeze through tight spaces. Researchers hope the robot will aid future search and rescue missions and surgical operations, according to the study’s leader, Kaushik Jayaram.

Growing up in India, Jayaram was intrigued by the elusive cockroaches that mysteriously appeared in his house, which later became the basis for the research.

“(Cockroaches) are disgusting and revolting, but they can teach us important stuff related to design principles,” said Robert Full, campus professor of integrative biology and director of the campus’s Poly-PEDAL Laboratory, which studies traditionally unsavory animals.

According to Jayaram, the team — composed of Jayaram, Full and undergraduate research students — spent more than a year studying cockroaches. They discovered that cockroaches’ flexibility allows them to compress their bodies from 1 1/2 inches high to the height of one-tenth of an inch, or two stacked pennies, in less than a second.

The study, published Monday, also found that cockroaches can run with splayed legs at the human equivalent of 70 miles per hour and withstand 900 times the force of their own body weight.

The robot marks an important development in the field of soft roboticand has the potential to be used in emergency and post-disaster situations.

“(CRAM can) go out into the real world (and) get into the spaces where humans and dogs cannot get into,” Jayaram said.

In the case of a major event, Full said CRAM robots can enter rubble to search for survivors and entry points for first responders.

“(CRAM) is a perfect example of the kind of work we’re doing, which is encouraging robots that benefit humans,” said Ken Goldberg, campus engineering professor and director of the People and Robots Initiative at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.

The team spent about six months designing and building CRAM by using a smart composite microstructure that was developed by campus electrical engineering and computer sciences professor Ronald Fearing.

The technique, inspired by the way arthropods build exoskeletons, combines soft and hard materials to create a flexible three-dimensional structure, Jayaram said.

CRAM has a shell with two halves and can withstand applied pressures by spreading its legs outward. The team used low-friction materials for the body and high-friction materials for the legs to effectively mimic the forces exerted by a compressed cockroach.

The prototype is available as an inexpensive kit created by Dash Robotics, a California-based company composed of former campus students of Fearing. The company creates nature-inspired affordable robots for educational and hobbyist purposes.

“Cockroaches are very, very resilient,” Goldberg said. “We don’t like to think of them, but you have to admit that they’re very, very effective.”

Contact Sareen Habeshian and Ericka Shin at [email protected].