Why are roaches so hard to SQUISH?
Have you ever stomped a roach, just to have it skitter away unscathed?* Or seen one disappear into an impossibly small crack?
Now scientists have figured out how they do that, and the results are terrifying.
The American cockroach (Periplaneta americana, aka “the big ones”) can squeeze through a crack the height of two stacked pennies in about a second—a fact newly discovered by two brave scientists who are probably still seeing roaches squeezing under the doors of their nightmares.
Not only can roaches fit through tight spaces by flattening their flexible exoskeleton and splaying their legs to the side, the researchers found, they can keep running nearly as fast while squished, the team reports Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (In roach terms, top speed is 1.5 meters, or 50 body lengths, per second. Scaled up, that’s equivalent to a human running 200 miles per hour.)
Robert Full and Kaushik Jayaram at Berkeley built tiny tunnels and used a roach-squishing machine to test the animals’ limits. (No roaches were harmed—Full says “we only pushed them to 900 times their body weight, and they could still do that without being hurt.” In fact, they ran just as fast afterward.)
“We find them just as disgusting and revolting as everybody else,” Full says. But he also thinks they’re amazing, and is designing roachy robots that can squeeze and scuttle just like the real thing. The robots take inspiration from roaches’ jointed exoskeletons, with a design similar to folded origami.
Full sees roaches and other arthropods—insects, spiders, and the like—as the next big thing in robots inspired by nature. Unlike other soft robots inspired by worms or octopuses, insect-bots with hard exoskeletons and muscles could run fast, jump, climb, and fly, while still remaining flexible.
“We know that cockroaches can go everywhere. They’re virtually indestructible,” Full says. For roaches, being able to scuttle quickly through small spaces has allowed them to spread into virtually every habitat imaginable and outrun their competition. Other insects probably have their own versions of these super-squishing superpowers, too, he says.
The new roach study “transformed how I view a seemingly ‘hard’ animal,” says Daniel Goldman of Georgia Tech, who studies the physics of animal movement.
“Their idea to create a “soft” robot out of deformable “hard” parts is great, and should transform how we think of creating all-terrain robots,” Goldman says.
by Erika Engelhaupt
Responses to RoboRoach, a behavior-controlling cockroach backpack, vary from enthusiasm to ethical concerns.
When RoboRoach appeared as a Kickstarter project in June, the project to control a living cockroach’s movements using a smartphone, generated buzz and was successfully funded. Now the project is poised for a large-scale launch in November, but some dissidents have raised ethics concerns about the way it frames animal experimentation.
Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, who are both trained neuroscientists and engineers, cofounded Backyard Brains, the company behind RoboRoach. According to the Kickstarter page, RoboRoach is a backpack that the roach wears that “communicates directly to the neurons via small electrical pulses.” By trimming the roach’s antenna to insert wires that could be attached to the Bluetooth backpack, aspiring neuroscientists can control the roach through a smartphone. Gage and Marzullo have billed the project as a way to spark an interest in neuroscience in students as young as 10 years old.
But some experts are concerned about the ethical implications of RoboRoach. “[The devices] encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms” and “encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools,” Michael Allen Fox, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Canada, told ScienceNOW. Animal behavior scientist Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society University in Washington, DC, added that the idea that animals are not harmed by the removal of body parts is “disingenuous.”
Backyard Brains responded to the criticisms of the project on the ethics section of the company’s website. “Our experiments are not philosophically perfect and without controversy; however, we believe the benefits outweigh the cost due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age,” they wrote. AtTed Global 2013 Gage added, “If we can get these tools into hands of kids, we can start the neuro-revolution.”