Roaches As Models for Rescue Bots

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Cockroaches may be the most detested among our city critters, but someday, disaster survivors may have these resilient little insects to thank for saving their lives.

Researchers in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkley, have used the American cockroach as a model for a new generation of rescue robots that can scuttle throughout collapsed buildings to locate survivors in the wake of a crisis.

The researchers, Kaushik Jayaram and Robert J. Full, believe that the cockroach’s speed, sturdiness, and astounding pliability make it the perfect candidate for technology based on biomimicry.

To assess the cockroach’s full range of abilities, they subjected a group of specimens to a series of tests, which included flattening them under a pressure 900 times their own body weight. Even when their legs splayed, the roaches were able to run 20 body lengths in a single second, demonstrating the exact dexterity that allows them to move within the tiny crevices of our walls and ceilings.

The bugs are able to squish their bodies down to 60 percent the normal size due to the structure of their exoskeleton, which is comprised of hard plates joined by a softer, more pliable membrane. It is this property that Jayaram and Full took into account when designing their “origami-style, soft, legged robot,” which can move quickly in open and restricted spaces.

This is not the first time that roaches have acted as vessels for studies in robotics. In a 2014 study funded by the National Science Foundation CyberPhysical Systems Program, a team of researchers created cyborg roaches, or biobots, by outfitting the insects’ backs with microchips capable of controlling their movements.

The team developed two types of “backpacks” for the biobots. The first employs a single microphone to capture sounds from any direction and then transmits the feed wirelessly to emergency responders. The second employs three-directional microphones to localize the area from which the sounds came. Used in conjunction with one another, the biobots should be able to detect and locate victims in rescue scenarios where rubble may prevent first responders from safely assessing disaster areas.

“In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors,” said Dr. Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at North Carolina State University and Principal Investigator at the Integrated Bionic MicroSystems Laboratory. Bozkurt co-authored two of the papers that accompanied this research.

“The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter—like people calling for help—from sounds that don’t matter—like a leaking pipe,” Bozkurt said. “Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero in on where those sounds are coming from.”

Bozkurt’s team also succeeded in creating an invisible fence that constricts the movement of the biobots to a certain area, which would be an essential feature if they were to be placed within a disaster site. The technology can be used to keep the insects within a specific range of one another, allowing them to operate as a mobile wireless network. This research came on the heels of similar work lead by Dr. Edgar Lobaton, who used biobots to map disaster sites.

The compressible robot created by Jayaram and Full integrates the results of these prior studies with their research on cockroach agility and endurance. Their study was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” this week.