"The earthquake in '89, actually, is what inspired some of these small robots. You could send these robots into collapsed buildings, send them through very smalls holes trying to find people and then, using wireless technology, you could relay that information back out to the top and signal where a survivor might be," says Paul Birkmeyer, a grad student in UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering.
Birkmeyer has already built nearly a hundred of the little robots with the help of Professor Ron Fearing and Kevin Peterson. Scavenging parts from cell phones and toys, they've kept the cost to less than $1 each. Fearing is UC Professor of Electrical Engineering and heads up Biomimetics research, which seeks to imitate nature in engineering design.
"In very mass quantities, you could think about making tens of thousands of them. Because, if you can save the rescuers from being endangered and find the survivors, having disposable robots is really worthwhile," said Fearing.
Tom Selleck's character battled similar creatures in "Runaway", a 1984 film that was pure science fiction. Today's is even better than the one in the movie. It incorporates a battery the size of a postage stamp, a camera from a cellphone, wi-fi from a custom bluetooth circuit, and remote control from a toy bought at Radio Shack.
The secret sauce is not the electronics though, it's the structure to run like a cockroach, even to climb obstacles. The manufacturing process was pioneered by Cal engineering students. Using a laser cutter, Birkmeyer can design and make a new robot in an hour out of cardboard. Made out of cardboard, it can survive a fall from a 10-story building.
"You can throw it potentially from any height. It can hit concrete and survive and run away," said Birkmeyer.
It can run away at five feet per second via remote control. Holding one isn't like holding a robot, it's like holding a bird.