The cockroach — elusive, prolific, and disgusting. Most would be happy to never see the little pest again. But what if cockroaches, (or what we can learn from them), could actually help humanity?
That is the idea behind research being published this week by Kaushik Jayaram and Professor Robert Full at UC Berkeley. Inspired by the cockroach’s design, Jayaram and Full have built the compressible robot with articulated mechanisms (CRAM). The CRAM mimics one of the cockroach’s signature talents — its ability to squeeze into extremely tight spaces. Many have had the experience of chasing a cockroach into a corner — only to have it escape into the tiniest of crevices. It turns out that the cockroach executes this vanishing act by compressing its body from a half inch to one-tenth of an inch in less than a second. By using flexible soft robotics, the CRAM mimics this squeezing skill. The researchers are exploring potential life-saving applications, such as employing the CRAM in search and rescue situations where it could squeeze through the rubble to aid search and rescue workers in finding openings leading the way to trapped victims.
“(CRAM) is a perfect example of the kind of work we’re doing, which is encouraging robots that benefit humans,” said Ken Goldberg, IEOR professor and director of the People and Robots Initiative at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). The People & Robots initiative seeks to “reduce drudgery and improve human experience in healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, safety, and a broad range of other applications in the interests of society.” (Read more on the CITRIS website here.)
To tackle some of humanity’s most complex issues, the People & Robots initiative brings together diverse groups of humans and machines, a concept Goldberg calls the “multiplicity.” (This is a counter to the idea of the “singularity” which foresees a future where humans and robots will be in conflict. You can read more about this topic in Goldberg’s recent Nature article titled “Countering Singularity Sensationlism.”)
While it might not be possible for people to feel anything but disgust when they see the cockroach, the CRAM proves that we can learn a lot from one the world’s most unique creatures.