A miniature robot that can squeeze itself into tiny gaps like a cockroach could be used in disaster areas to find victims trapped in unreachable areas.
Scientists at University of California Berkeley have developed the device, called Cram (Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms), which takes inspiration from cockroaches which are able to rapidly move through miniature crevices that are less than a quarter of their body height.
The team said that cockroaches are about 13mm tall when they ran freely, but were able to compress their bodies to about 2.5mm to get through cracks.
"We feel strongly that cockroaches are one of nature's most revolting animals, but they can teach us important design principles," said Professor Robert Full who is working on Cram.
"Nature has a library of design ideas. This diversity enables discovery. You never know where basic research will lead. The most important discoveries are often from the most unexpected creatures, some of which are disgusting."
The simple and inexpensive robot is 18cm long and 7.6cm tall, weighing 46 grams. It is constructed using an origami-like manufacturing technique that enables it to reorient its legs and compress its body like a cockroach to get through vertically confined spaces.
The team believes the device could help in the search and rescue of victims buried under rubble as a result of storms, earthquakes or explosions.
"In the event of an earthquake, first responders need to know if an area of rubble is stable and safe, but the challenge is most robots can't get into rubble,” said Full.
"If there are lots of cracks and vents and conduits, you can imagine just throwing a swarm of these robots in to locate survivors and safe entry points for first responders."
Although the current model is only a prototype, it demonstrates the feasibility of soft robots that can be used in disaster scenarios.
The Cram prototype is not the first robot that has been inspired by insects. Last year, Harvard engineers showed miniature robotic ‘bees’ that could traverse both air and water.