VIDEO: This Robot Is Tougher Than You, Stronger Than You, and Shaped Like a Cockroach

Cockroaches are gross to lots of people. But not to a group of robotic engineers that's part of partnership between UC Berkeley and Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute. Where other folks are disgusted, they're inspired. In fact, their latest robot is built in the form of a roach.

"Most of the robots at this particular small scale are very fragile. If you step on them, you pretty much destroy the robot,” said Liwei Lin, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study describing the robot, in a press release.

But not robo-roach.

“A cockroach is a very strong insect,” said Junwen Zhong, a member of the  team.  “A cockroach can survive in a lot of critical environments. They are fast and flexible, and they are very difficult to kill. Even when you step on it.”

The roach robot weighs less than a tenth of a gram and still works after an attempted squish by someone weighing up to around 130 pounds. It also moves 20 times its body length in a single second.


So How Does It Work?

The robot is constructed with a special material that expands and contracts with the application of electricity. (In engineer-speak, the material is piezoelectric, Zhong said, encased in an elastic polymer.)

The shape of the robot’s body is important; it's curved and paper thin, with legs.  That design, coupled with the special material, enables the robot to move rapidly back and forth when electricity is applied.

The robot bends and straightens, and because of the elastic coating, its contortions are harnessed, propelling it forward. The result is that it skitters around in what Zhong describes as a “leapfrogging” motion.

You may be wondering: Why did the team build this, exactly?

Zhong says he hopes engineers can use the small, flexible robots to aid in the response to natural disasters. After an earthquake, for example, he thinks the resilient robot can help find survivors amongst the rubble and debris, accessing places that humans and larger, less roach-like robots can’t.

The team also hopes to attach a small sensor to the robot that can detect the presence of gas and toxic chemicals.

“After a disaster, there are many places that are too dangerous for people to search,” Zhong said.

Insights from the robot research were published in a recent paper from the the journal Science Robotics. There's also a lot of great information about the roach-inspired robot in the UC Berkeley news release.