A $6.4 Million Robotic Cockroach
An American Cockroach Becomes a Robot
A Berkeley team has managed to recreate a cockroach, albeit in robotic form. The insectoid robot, partially funded by the Army Research Laboratory under the Micro Autonomous System and Technology (MAST) program, is a compressible, palm-sized robot. Like the cockroach, CRAM (compressible robot with articulated mechanisms) can not only compress itself but continue to ambulate at much the same speed as when uncompressed.
The American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) is able to rapidly traverse small spaces by compressing its body up to 60%. In addition, these roaches have the ability to compress and navigate spaces at only a quarter of their usual height, though not quite as quickly. Basing CRAM’s design on the observations of a previously unexplored locomotion method, now named body-friction legged crawling, researchers have created a prototype of a simple palm-sized robot able to splay its legs outward when squashed yet still remain mobile. This robot was then capped with a plastic exoskeleton which was jointed in much the same manner as a regular cockroach.
The cockroach’s exoskeleton appears to be more pliable than previously thought. It is pliable enough to allow the cockroach to navigate incredibly small spaces, yet still maintains the ability to protect the soft body of the roach itself. In fact, an American cockroach is able to withstand forces nearly 900 times its body weight. In human terms, that equates to an average person being crushed by 123,000 lbs.
Based on these observations, the Berkeley creation has a low friction shell that is able to not only withstand substantial forces but is also able to compress to half-height while maintaining forward motion. Additionally, CRAM is completely autonomous in both power and control and weighs just over 1.5 ounces which includes both the battery and onboard electronics.
What About the Military?
This begs the question of what good is a robotic cockroach. Looking at the private sector, a robot with these capabilities would be beneficial in disaster response situations, where it may be able to hunt for survivors in the debris of a fallen building, such as might happen after an earthquake. However, since the military is, in part, funding this research, this little cockroach robot may eventually exist for the pursuit of collecting intelligence and situational awareness in small spaces for military personnel.
This isn’t the first time the military has funded robotic research. In fact, the MAST program is rife with military possibilities. In 2006, DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced a program wherein they would be attaching computers to actual insects. This program produced some interesting research, not the least of which was a cyborg-type beetle. The beetle was ‘steered’ via direct nerve and muscle stimulation. Additionally, a robot “fly”, weighing in at less than a tenth of an ounce and just over an inch in length, was created. Unfortunately, the steering of this fly remains problematic.
It appears that the more research that is conducted on insects, the more robot, semi-robot, and cyborg-type robots/insects will be produced. Whether this new technology will be used for things such as disaster relief or for military operations remains a question that will only be answered with time.