Creep-tastic cockroach robot refuses to be squished

Cockroaches may have a bad rap, but they inspired researchers to build a clever robot that can jam its body into cramped spaces.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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Cockroach-bot isn't worried about being flattened.

Tom Libby/Kaushik Jayaram/Pauline Jennings/PolyPEDAL Lab UC Berkeley

There are cute robots. There are helpful robots. There are unhelpful robots.

And then there's one that will elicit a shriek because it's a mechanical version of a cockroach.

The cockroach may sound like an unpleasant inspiration for a robot. But consider its charms: The insect is small, fast, tough and capable of squeezing into tight places.

A research team at the University of California at Berkeley put real roaches through an obstacle course to learn how they slink through cracks. It turns out that cockroaches stick their legs out to the side and compress their bodies to the height of a couple pennies. The study also found that cockroaches can withstand being crushed by 900 times their body weight and live to tell the tale.

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Berkeley integrative biology student Kaushik Jayaram (now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard) took this cockroach knowledge and built an inexpensive robot capable of splaying its legs and lowering its body. It even has a bug-inspired plastic shell that makes it look like a cross between a cockroach and a pill bug.

The robot model has the adorable name "CRAM," which stands for "compressible robot with articulated mechanisms." The prototype's flexible shell and legs allow it to continue moving forward at a fast clip, even when in a tightly confined space.

"Insects are the most successful animals on earth," says Berkeley professor Robert Full. "Because they intrude nearly everywhere, we should look to them for inspiration as to how to make a robot that can do the same."

Full envisions swarms of these robots hitting the ground at disaster sites and squeezing through rubble to look for survivors. Jayaram and Full's study was published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title "Cockroaches traverse crevices, crawl rapidly in confined spaces, and inspire a soft, legged robot."