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Swarms of Robotic Insects Could Aid Disaster Responses

Technology being developed at UC Berkeley could be in use within five years

Robot Insect 03Your apartment building crumples around you as a powerful earthquake tears apart your neighborhood.

Your leg is broken, pinned to the sloping floor by an errant rafter. Blood gushes from your forearm and a steady stream of rainwater chills your neck. Rubble surrounds you.

After hours of misery, a slight buzzing sound begins to pierce the eerie quiet. Within minutes, electronic cockroaches are clambering over your ailing body.

The arrival of this swarm of hypothetical insect robots, as horrifying as it sounds, could help save your life.

This month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would partner with private companies to develop insect robots that would transmit video and other data to rescuers, helping them map disaster zones and search for victims.

The program's first prototypes could be built by 2014, according to Program Manager Jalal Mapar.

Similar technology is already being developed at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as at other universities.

“I would say small robots like this could be used somewhere in the next three to five years,” said Kevin Peterson, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate who has spent the past three years developing lightweight robotic insects that can fly and run. “It’s really not that far off.”

Robotic Cockroach - DASH+Wings

Robots have long been used in search-and-rescue operations, inspections of suspicious packages, and factory production lines. But the rapid development of smartphones and other electronic devices has spawned batteries, computer chips and cameras that are cheap and small enough to be used in disposable insect-sized robots.

Such devices could be sent in throngs to inspect pipelines for leaks, measure radiation levels in crippled nuclear plants and scour disaster sites for survivors, Peterson said. They could also be armed and put to deadly uses by governments or terrorists, he acknowledged.

“The overall goal is exploring spaces that are too small or unsafe for humans,” Peterson said. “A great way to get inspiration for how to build these robots is to look at biology, because there’s nowhere on earth that an animal can’t get to.”

Robot Insect 02

One of Peterson’s inventions, dubbed DASH+wings, resembles a large cockroach. (DASH stands for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod.) The 1-ounce robot has a 1-foot wingspan, but it doesn’t fly — its rapidly flapping wings provide extra thrust that improves its running speed and helps it scrabble up slopes and over obstacles.

Instead of wheels, the invention uses six small legs, harnessing a design used by insects that ensures there are always three legs on the ground, forming a stable tripod.

And Peterson’s latest invention travels through the air, instead of on the ground. The Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning, or BOLT, has two wings for flying and two legs. It weighs less than half of an ounce and looks vaguely like a dragonfly.

The gizmos cost $250 apiece to make, but Peterson said that figure could fall to $50 if the devices were produced in large numbers. He also said the size of the robots will shrink over time.

Peterson is one of 21 researchers at the UC Berkeley Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, one of several laboratories in the nation working on biomimicry — the practice of imitating traits that evolved naturally over eons.

Other researchers in the lab are developing eight-legged crawling insects and navigational systems, and a previous researcher helped develop an adhesive based on gecko toes that’s being commercialized by the Pittsburgh, Pa., startup nanoGriptech.

Ronald Fearing, the director of the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, said robots inspired by nature will ultimately be able to accomplish tasks that are impossible for humans or animals.

"If we compare what an animal or a human can do, compared with what machines or robots can do, there's a huge difference," he said.

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