Robo Roaches

Robo Roaches Photo Credit: Tom Libby, Kaushik Jayaram and Pauline Jennings. Courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab, UC Berkeley

Small, maneuverable robots based on cockroaches could be deployed in disaster zones to find human survivors.


Cockroach-inspired engineering. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Bioengineer Robert Full wants to make a fast, maneuverable, nearly indestructible robot. So he’s basing it on a fast, maneuverable, nearly indestructible creature: the cockroach. At his laboratory at UC, Berkeley, Full discovered that roaches can squeeze into spaces less than half their height. And then, amazingly, run in those spaces.

They could continue to locomote even though they’re sort of compressed in half, with their legs just splayed out completely to the side; they could continue to run at twenty body lengths a second, so this is a very high speed.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he describes a roach-like structure made of rigid segments with elastic connectors. His goal is to make rescue roaches that can navigate through tight spots in rubble after a disaster and locate people trapped inside. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Cockroaches are often considered to be nearly indestructible. Combine that with the fact that they can move quickly and squeeze into tight spaces, you can start to see why many people are afraid of them.

Researchers at the University of California—Berkeley, however, are impressed with cockroaches and they even study them to try to figure out how they move so quickly in even the smallest of spaces. They want to apply what they learn from the cockroaches to the design of new technologies that can potentially help solve human problems.

This kind of research and design is called biomimicry, which is the relativly new scientific practice of studying systems and elements in nature and adapting them to solve modern human problems. As Robert Full explains, "It's often thought that biomimicry is just looking at nature and then being able to copy it in some way. It turns out to be much more difficult. Because organisms are not optimally designed, we have to do very rigourous studies to understand the history of their evolution and their design compromises so that we can extract the general principles and be able to give the best advice possible to engineers."

And that's what these researchers have been doing with cockroaches. Dr. Full and Dr. Kaushik Jayaram studied American cockroaches in a controlled setting where they could put the creatures through a series of tests to evaluate their abilities. For example, the cockroaches ran through obstacle courses, squeezed through spaces about one quarter their body height (the same height of two stacked pennies), and ran at top speeds through tight spaces. Even compressed in these tight spaces, with their legs splayed out to their sides, they could run at 20 body lengths per second. According to Dr. Full, that's like a human sprinting 70 miles an hour.

In addition to these abilities, it appeared that the cockroaches could withstand pressures of up to nearly 900 times their own body weight. They could even wriggle through a crevice that exerted compression forces of about 300 times their body weight.

The cockroaches were able to perform these feats because their bodies are made up of rigid plates connected by flexible tissue, so they can be flattened without being broken. The researchers took what they learned from the cockroaches and then applied it to the design of a robot that also could move through tight spaces and withstand high amounts of pressure. They hope that these robots will one day be able to help in emergency situations in which first responders search for survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings or other potentially dangerous situations. They imagine that a swarm of these robots could be deployed to search through the rubble and report back if they locate a survivor.

Before this can happen, though, more research and modification of the design will need to be done until the robot is small enough and adaptable enough to do what a real cockroach can do.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why are Dr. Full and Dr. Jayaram studying cockroaches? What do they hope to learn from these insects?
  2. What is biomimicry? According to Dr. Full, is biomimicry just about copying nature? What else is involved?
  3. How did the researchers study the cockroaches? What did they learn?
  4. How are the researchers applying what they learned from the cockroaches to new technology?
  5. Can you think of things in nature that could help you design a useful technology?

You can learn more about how scientists study the natural world for inspiration with this Science Update Podcast from January 7, 2011, on the Nature of Invention. Topics covered in this podcast include how: sea urchin teeth could inspire new nano-materials, hornet stripes could lead to better solar technology, and automatic transmissions could revolutionize electric wheelchairs, in addition to new research on the genetics of hair color and male pattern baldness.

The Science Update Insect Gears looks at how the planthopper nymph has natural gears on its hind legs.

Going Further

For Educators

You could extend the ideas in this Science Update by having students listen to Gecko Feet, which looks at how engineers are trying to imitate the amazing properties of the gecko's toes. 

This Science Update would make an excellent addition to a high-school engineering class. You could use it to show students how scientists look to and study the natural world to help them solve technological challenges and devise new products. This Science Update also could be used to enhance any lessons or units you do on the nature of science.

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Organisms in Motion: Practical Applications of Biological Research
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Robotic Materials
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