UC Berkeley biologists have found robotic inspiration in the creepy ability of cockroaches to squeeze through even the tiniest crack.

Using the roach technique as inspiration, the team designed a simple and cheap palm-sized robot that splays its legs outward when squashed. The robot is capped with a plastic shield, similar to the tough, smooth wings covering the back of a cockroach.

Called CRAM, for compressible robot with articulated mechanisms, the device squeezes into and runs through crevices half its height.

“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 Robert Full, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “But 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.”

Study leader Kaushik Jayaram built the model robot using an origami-like manufacturing technique, now available as an inexpensive kit made by Dash Robotics — a commercial spin-off from previous robotic work at UC Berkeley. More robust versions will be needed for real-world testing.

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