UC Berkeley researchers develop insect-sized robot with cockroachlike abilities

photo of insect sized robot
Liwei Lin/Courtesy
Campus researches have developed a robot the size of a small insect with the potential to aid in search and rescue operations.

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UC Berkeley researchers have created an insect-sized robot with the speed of a cockroach and the agility of a cheetah to potentially assist search and rescue missions.

Originally developed in 2019, the robot was created through the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute. It has great durability with its robust, soft structure making it advantageous in dangerous situations, according to Liwei Lin, campus professor of mechanical engineering and senior researcher.

“If you look at the collapse of the Florida condo, with lots of people buried under the rubble, we don’t know if there are survivors and we don’t know their location,” Lin said. “If you can imagine a cockroach that can sneak through the tiny holes and reach the survivors, there may be a better opportunity to save lives and persons.”

The original robot was constructed out of polymer and piezoelectric material, responding when voltage is applied, Lin noted.

New developments applied to the robot include the addition of two electrostatic footpads, according to Peter Oboyski, executive director of the Essig Museum of Entomology.

“Adding electrostatic footpads allows these new robots to maintain body position – without sliding or flying off the track – while executing tight maneuvers at speeds comparable to cockroaches,” Oboyski said in an email.

By applying voltage to either of the footpads, one of the robot’s feet can be held in place, forcing it to make a sharp turn, according to Lin. He added that the robot initially relied on electrical wiring to provide voltage but can now be powered by a battery.

Prior to these developments, the 2019 study revealed that the robot’s frame already allowed it to withstand nearly 60 kilograms of added pressure without being destroyed, approximately 1 million times the robot’s weight, the study noted.

The robot’s speed of 20 body lengths per second was also measured and determined to be the fastest among “artificial insect-scale robots,” according to the study.

“In order to execute tasks in complex environments, robots need to have the ability to navigate around obstacles by both speedy translational and rotational motions,” said Zhichun Shao, a former campus graduate student researcher, in an email. “We created our insect-inspired soft robot to achieve the above desired features.”

According to Robert Full, campus professor of integrative biology, the robot’s future function may include “detecting hazardous substances, environmental monitoring, inspection of infrastructure (and) search and rescue.”

Lin also noted an experiment the robot’s engineers conducted during their research. The robot used a methanol detector to locate a gas leakage and determine its concentration.

“Having robots that can navigate tight spaces in search of survivors where people and dogs cannot fit would literally be a life-saving invention,” Oboyski said in the email. “But there are many other daily uses we can imagine, like replacing camera guided fiber optic tubes that are limited by the number of twists and turns they can manage before getting stuck.”

Contact Kavya Gupta at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.