Imagine you’re in a building during an earthquake. The building crumbles around you and you’re trapped under the rubble. All of a sudden, a giant cockroach crawls toward you, and you think things can’t get much worse. But wait — that cockroach might be there to save your life.

Could a roach really rescue a person? It could if it’s a camera- and microphone-equipped robot sending information about your whereabouts to emergency responders.

The notion started with a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, which found cockroaches can shrink their bodies down to penetrate the tightest joints and seams in less than a second.

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“What’s impressive about these cockroaches is that they can run as fast through a quarter-inch gap as a half-inch gap, by reorienting their legs completely out to the side,” lead study author Kaushik Jayaram, PhD, said in a press release. “They’re about half an inch tall when they run freely, but can squish their bodies to one-tenth of an inch — the height of two stacked pennies.”

Also, cockroaches can withstand forces 900 times their body weight, according to Jayaram, and can travel 50 times their body length in one second.

That research inspired the idea for a bug-like robot that could squeeze through cracks to “crawl” to survivors of tornados, earthquakes and explosions. Jayaram created a simple, cheap prototype called CRAM (compressible robot with articulated mechanisms) which can crawl even when squashed to half its size.


“Most robots can’t get into rubble,” said Robert Full, PhD, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, in the press release. “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.”

The Associated Press reports:

“Jayaram, a Harvard robotics researcher, said the most difficult part was the design, but after that he used off-the-shelf electronics and motors, cardboard, polyester and some knowledge of origami. He could probably put one together in about half an hour, he estimated. All told, the prototype probably cost less than $100, Jayaram said. He figures if mass-produced, with sensors and other equipment added on, the robots could eventually cost less than $10 apiece.”

The researchers hope roach-like robots could even tell rescuers if rubble piles are stable.

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Angela is a Pulitzer Prize-winning digital editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and information to audiences worldwide. Prior to joining SafeBee, she was the features editor for Boston.com at The Boston Globe, overseeing health, travel, entertainment, business and lifestyle coverage. Before moving to features, she was the news and homepage editor, covering stories such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Red Sox World Series victories, presidential elections, a papal inauguration, and more. Her favorite safety tip: Clean your phone! The average cell phone has 18 times more germs than the toilet handle in a men’s restroom.