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University Researchers Develop a Technique to Remotely Control Cockroaches

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Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) have made a quite major step forward in developing a technique which leverages an electronic interface to remotely control cockroaches.

While this is supposedly to be used for positive purposes, namely, to find survivors in a building destroyed by an earthquake, I think it is quite obvious that this is not the only thing it could be used for. The earthquake application is strikingly similar to that proposed for the technology allowing people to “see” around corners and through skin via advanced optics and photons.

With an increasing demand for small robots capable of navigating tight spaces, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see this type of technology used by the military or law enforcement.

The researchers have developed a technique – outlined in a paper entitled, “Line Following Terrestrial Insect Robots” – which leverages an electronic interface placed on the cockroaches back, thus allowing them to remotely steer the cockroaches and “allow first responders to create a mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information,” according to Homeland Security News Wire.

Watch the “Roboroach” in action below:

“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, assistant professor of electrical engineering at North Carolina State University and co-author of the paper on the breakthrough.

The ultimate goal, according to Bozkurt, is the creation of a “mobile web of smart sensors” using cockroaches to both collect and transmit information.

While this obviously could be used for incredibly positive and useful ends such as earthquake rescue, it could also be used for surveillance and other law enforcement or military purposes.

“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,” explained Bozkurt.

There is also the cost factor involved in producing robots which very well might be lost in the process, however, the costs involved in creating a way to control cockroaches isn’t all that cheap either.

Researchers needed to develop a method which is both cost-effective and electrically safe to control the cockroaches, which they did by making the roach think that danger was near or an object was blocking its path, according to an Engadget article linked to by NCSU.

Bozkurt’s team developed a method which involves embedding the roaches – in this case Madagascar hissing cockroaches – with a relatively simple, low-cost and lightweight commercially available microchip outfitted with a wireless receiver and transmitter.

The “cockroach backpack” weighs in at a mere 0.7 grams and also contains a microcontroller which is connected to the roach’s antennae and cerci, allowing monitoring of the interface between the electrodes implanted in the roach and the roach’s tissue in order to avoid possible neural damage.

The microcontroller uses the cerci because they are sensory organs normally used by the roach to detect movement in the air, possibly indicating a predator. When the cerci on the roach’s abdomen detect movement they cause the roach to scurry away to safety.

The researchers found that they could use wires attached to the cerci to make the roach move in a desired direction since the roach thinks something is sneaking up behind it. Thus, the roach is spurred to move forward and the wires attached to the cockroach’s antennae act as something like “electronic reins, injecting small charges into the roach’s neural tissue,” according to Homeland Security News Wire.

These “electronic reins” essentially trick the cockroach into thinking their antennae are in contact with some kind of physical barrier, pushing them to move in a different direction.

The precision with which they can make these cockroaches move is quite astounding, especially since this technology is still in its relative infancy.

The researchers have already demonstrated the ability to use a microcontroller to make the cockroach move along a line curving in different directions (see the above video) and one must realize that this capability will only become increasingly precise as the technology is refined.

While indeed this could be a phenomenal step forward in earthquake rescue and save many peoples’ lives, it could also be just as easily employed in military and law enforcement contexts for ends which are far less laudable. All we can really do is hope that it is used for positive ends instead of the many less-than-admirable applications.


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