Disposable robots can sprint, fly, and potentially save lives

With the small robots, you won't cry over larger, expensive robots lost in a fire

Velociroach robots climbs over an obstacle.
Credit: Carlos Casarez, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley

Sometimes, smaller is better, especially with robots.

That's what researchers developing mini-robots have in mind. Robots that cost US$10 to $100 are cheaper to make and more useful to deploy in emergency situations than big robots with limited mobility.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are developing sophisticated robots that are up to 10 centimeters long, and can run, climb, fly, and communicate with emergency personnel.

Even better? Once the multi-leg robots serve their purpose, they can be disposed of without any regrets.

The research project is funded by the National Robotics Initiative, part of the National Science Foundation.

Small emergency-response robots are especially relevant in California's Bay Area, which lives in the fear of a massive earthquake. San Francisco is also hilly, meaning tiny robots that can climb would be handy.

The researchers believe these robots are more helpful for search and rescue than larger robots, which can be slow and unpredictable. Moreover, the large robots could have trouble jumping over obstacles.

The mini-robots can serve as adjunct devices to search-and-rescue efforts. For example, a firefighter could use dozens of sensor-filled robots to generate useful data, which is then communicated to emergency personnel.

A robot with a distance sensor will be able to determine how far a trapped person may be inside a building and communicate the information back to rescue personnel. The data can then be displayed on a tablet. Thermal and environmental sensors can also be loaded in robots.

The robot researchers will collaborate with California Task Force 3 Urban Search and Rescue to locate people in collapsed buildings, NSF said.

Small robots with $1 sensors could also be used to detect hydrogen sulfide leaks in oil refineries, according to NSF.

Robots developed by researchers as part of this program include the Miniroach, a hexapod robot a little larger than a U.S. quarter. The autonomous robot can move roughly three centimeters per second. A larger version of that robot, the 30-gram, 10-centimeter long Velociroach can move roughly three meters per second. A larger X2-Velociroach can move at about five meters per second.

The most recent development is the ability for robots to collaborate.

The researchers at Berkeley have also shown a robot called H2Bird that can fly after taking off from the Velociroach.

As disgusting as the cockroach-like design of the robots may look, the design aids in fast movement and maneuverability. The design of the robots is inspired by lizards and insects. Wireless connectivity and other modules can be loaded on the robots to increase their utility.

The researchers are also trying to ensure the robots can be easily manufactured. But there are challenges -- while the robots can move in open space, efforts are underway to help them better maneuver through obstacles and small holes, important in search and rescue.

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