A team of researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a technique to remotely control and steer cockroaches via an electronic interface. While at first glance it may seem cruel and a bit pointless, the team believe that by remote-controlling cockroaches, they can create an army of ‘smart sensors’ that could find wounded people in an emergency and assess situations that would previously be inaccessible to humans.

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In a statement, Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work said: “Our aim was to determine whether we could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces.”

“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. 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.”

By implementing their bionic implants, the team found they were able to steer the cockroaches within defined parameters and to specific areas of interest. Their system works by embedding a low-cost, light-weight, commercially-available chip with a wireless receiver and transmitter onto each roach (specifically Madagascar hissing cockroaches).

This bionic backback (which weights a mere 0.7 grams) also contains a microcontroller that monitors the interface between the implanted electrodes and the tissue to avoid potential neural damage. The microcontroller is then wired to the roach’s antennae and sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen. These organs are normally used to detect movement in the air, indicating the proxmity of a predator. This in turns causes the cockroach to retreat at great speed.

However, with the help of the system, the team was able to ‘activate’ the organs and spur the roach into motion. In short, they make the cockroach think that something is behind it, forcing it forward. Meanwhile the wires attached to antennae serve as electronic reins, injecting small charges into the roach’s neural tissue, making the cockroach think that the antennae are in contact with a physical barrier and steering it in the opposite direction.

The paper, Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots, was presented at the 34th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society and was authored by Tahmid Latif, a Ph.D. student at NC State, and co-authored by Bozkurt.

Click below to see a video of the experiment.

So, cool or cruel?

+ “Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots”

Via North Carolina State University