CRAMming into Small Spaces

By Leela Velautham

May 3, 2016

Credit: Tom Libby, Kaushik Jayaram and Pauline Jennings. Courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab Credit: Tom Libby, Kaushik Jayaram and Pauline Jennings. Courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab

It’s time to confront our fears: studying how cockroaches slither, run, and withstand pressure in confined spaces could inspire a new generation of search and rescue robots.

Researchers at UC Berkeley have found that that the pliable, jointed exoskeleton of the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) enables it to deform itself to navigate tight environments. Amazingly, these cockroaches can compress their bodies by 40-60 percent and fold their exoskeleton in half in less than a second. Despite not being able to use their feet properly in this squashed state, they are still able to crawl at high speeds of up to 20 body lengths per second by twisting their legs outwards and using other parts of their legs to crawl. Exoskeletal strength also allows cockroaches to withstand forces up to almost 900 times their body weight without injury—take that, world’s strongest man!

Using the properties of the cockroach exoskeleton as inspiration, Professor Robert Full and Kaushik Jayaram, a former graduate student in Integrative Biology, built CRAM, a compressible robot with articulated mechanisms. The prototype is an origami-style, soft robot with a jointed, malleable shell. CRAM can move rapidly in open and closed spaces, squeeze into and run through crevices measuring half its height, withstand forces 20 times its body weight, and splay its legs outwards when squashed, using other parts of its legs to run rather than its feet. These abilities could lead to a possible future for CRAM as a search and rescue robot, burrowing through rubble generated by natural disasters in order to locate survivors and determine safe entry points for first responders.

This article is part of the Spring 2016 issue.

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