It’s been said that if there was ever a nuclear apocalypse, the only living creature likely to remain will be a cockroach. Why? Because the gross little bugs are just so damn hard to kill. You’ve probably tried stepping on one or smashing it with a rolled up newspaper, only to lift your foot and watch it scurry away. Well, it’s the cockroaches’ uncanny ability to avoid being squished that makes them so ideal for rescue situations.
Now before you balk at the idea of being carried out of a collapsed building by an army of roaches – or even worse, by one giant one – do not worry as they will not technically rescue you. But a robot inspired by the said roach might.
A new paper details how researchers at the University of California Berkeley are looking at the bug’s amazing ability to flatten itself for their robot design – even if the bugs are gross. “We are not entomologists. We also think they’re disgusting,” says Robert Full, who works on biomechanics and animal locomotion at UC Berkeley and is lead author on the article. “But they can teach us bigger principles.”
For one, a cockroach’s exoskeleton has overlapping plates of tough material that allows them to collapse their exoskeleton nearly in half. This allows the bugs to squeeze into spaces less than a quarter of their height – which explains how they are always disappearing right when you think you’ve got them cornered. They can also do this incredibly fast (less than a second) and actually predict when a foot or other smashing object is about to come down on them. The roaches have bristles on their bodies that are sensitive enough to tell when a fast moving object – like a frying pan – is descending upon them. Full and his team also measured the amount of weight that could be placed upon a cockroach and found that the near-indestructible bugs can take up to nearly 900 times their weight before being squished.
All of this makes the cockroaches design ideal for developing rescue robots. In situations where a building has collapsed and there are slabs of concrete stacked up like pancakes, it can be impossible for a human or rescue dog to reach somebody more than 20 feet below the rubble. “People have been using ground robots where the voids are about 20 inches or less in cross section,” said Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University. “What would be really great, when you get into these pancake collapses where you have survivable voids but they’re really deep, would be if you could go less than that, a couple of inches.” A robot with cockroach flattening abilities might be able to dig 40 feet or deeper.
While the idea of being rescued by it might not be as adorable as a German shepherd pulling you out of the rubble, most of us would gladly welcome a rescuing bug robot when in a disaster situation.