Technology | Robotics

How Cockroaches Are Inspiring Robotics

Their infiltrative and durable nature could someday improve our quality of life through engineering.

Sean Kernan
5 min readNov 30, 2023

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Four legged robot on display.
JPL’s RoboSimian, which was one of the only multi-legged competitors, at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals. (Images via Picryl (Public Domain)

Cockroaches have made their way into my life, against my will, and to great inconvenience. Three years ago, my girlfriend cried into the phone for me to come over, “Please…please…it is twitching on my kitchen floor.” She sounded like a hostage. We went back and forth for two minutes, with me insisting I couldn’t come to her house.

“I’m busy writing. Just get a paper towel and flush it,” I said, trying to calm her down. It didn’t work. She begged and begged until I finally said, “I’m doing this once.” And then drove 20 minutes — just to kill a roach.

After we moved into our new house together, my war with the roaches truly began. Exterminating them took significant research and numerous failed attempts. Mine is a common problem, and has made me question the value of these little critters.

We should be impressed that a creature has survived so much research and resources put into their extermination, and pesticides that are only making them stronger. A roach always finds a way and there is no “walling them out”. To the shock of NASA’s employees, one even snuck onboard Apollo 12. They’d moved mountains to decontaminate the spacecraft and ensure nothing snuck on. Employees were even in denial, swearing the roach couldn’t be there when astronauts said they’d seen one. Nevertheless, one did, and Apollo 12 took off for the moon while gaining the nickname, “The Roach Coach”.

Roaches are so nimble that researchers at Cornell University explored how just flexible they are. In a test of increasingly smaller crevices, they discovered roaches could squeeze through 3 millimeter spaces, despite their back being 12 millimeters high. Their exoskeleton is indeed hard and breakable, but exists in sections connected by soft tissue that molds and bends. And even while pressed down tight with weight on their back, they can still move fast and with little regard for gravity. When adjusting for size, they run the equivalent of a human running 200 mph. They can run when missing four legs. They can climb vertically while missing two feet. Scientists proved…

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Sean Kernan

Former financial analyst turned writer. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.