Remote-controlled cockroaches may soon be coming to the rescue of trapped disaster victims.
A team of researchers at North Carolina State University have harnessed the insect’s movements through electrical signals and believe it could help find people trapped in collapsed buildings and other disaster zones unnavigable by humans.
“The trick is to fire wireless signals at a roach’s antennae and other sensory organs to guide it to a desired destination,” Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, told scientificamerican.com. “What we do is similar to riding a horse.”
Bozkurt, working with doctoral candidate Tahmid Latif, communicated with Madagascar hissing cockroaches by saddling them with electrical devices that look like backpacks. Each insect backpack included a thin, rigid, printed circuit board with a microcontroller, a wireless signal receiver, miniature plugs for connecting stimulation electrodes and a lithium-ion polymer battery.
“The cockroach walks naturally, and we simulate barriers by sending pulses to its antenna. They use their antenna as touch sensors, so stimulation on one side directs these insects towards the opposite direction.” Bozkurt and Latif presented their research last month at the 34th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society in San Diego, Calif.
The researchers say they programmed the microcontroller with an algorithm to monitor the amount of voltage induced into the roach’s neural tissue in order to keep from damaging that tissue and making it unresponsive to stimulation pulses.
The insect’s biological autonomy helps them survive and move freely in any tight spots.
The researchers see remote-control cockroaches as an alternative to small-scale robots. Designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at navigating hostile environments, according to Bozkurt.
Bozkurt and Latif’s next step is to miniaturize the backpack even further and gain more precise control of movement.