Biorobotics – remotely controlled cockroaches
Researchers from North Carolina State University (NC State) have developed a technique that uses an electronic interface to remotely control living cockroaches. Although the system is not as invasive as the one used in “Borg insects” we wrote about earlier, there are questions raised about the ethics of such approach. The technology could be used in disaster sites as well as in surveillance.
“Our aim was to determine whether we could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces”, said Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC State.
The researchers used Madagascar hissing cockroaches and embedded a low-cost, light-weight, commercially-available chip with a wireless receiver and transmitter onto each roach. Weighing 0.7 grams (0.024 ounces), the cockroach backpack also contains a microcontroller that monitors the interface between the implanted electrodes and the tissue to avoid potential neural damage.
The microcontroller is wired to the roach’s antennae and cerci. The cerci are sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen, which are normally used to detect movement in the air that could indicate that a predator is approaching. Wires attached to the cerci are used to stimulate the roach into motion. The roach thinks something is sneaking up behind it and moves forward.
The wires attached to the antennae are used to steer the insect by injecting small charges into the roach’s neural tissue. The charges trick the roach sensing into thinking that the antennae are in contact with a physical barrier, thus making the roach turn into the opposite direction. By controlling antennae and cerci, NC State researchers were able to use the microcontroller to precisely steer the roaches along a line that curves in different directions.
“Ultimately, we think this will allow us to create a mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information, such as finding survivors in a building that’s been destroyed by an earthquake. Building small-scale robots that can perform in such uncertain, dynamic conditions is enormously difficult”, said Bozkurt. “We decided to use biobotic cockroaches in place of robots, as designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at performing in such a hostile environment.”
For more information, you can read the paper named: “Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots” [314KB PDF].