Roaches to the Rescue

Live remote-controlled cockroaches may one day be used to seek out Earthquake victims buried in debris.

Sep 13, 2012
Elise Andrew

Scientists from North Carolina State University are developing methods of controlling the direction a cockroach travels in the hope of harnessing their survival skills to benefit humanity. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor at the University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, worked with doctoral candidate Tahmid Latif to create small insect “backpacks” that are attached to Madagascan hissing cockroaches. These backpacks contain a circuit board with a tiny computer, a wireless receiver, plugs for electron stimulators, and a battery that can be used to generate a small electrical charge on either the left or right side of the cockroach.

“What we do is similar to riding a horse," Bozkurt told Scientific American. "[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."

The research, presented last month at the 4th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society in San Diego, California, could prove useful in search-and-rescue missions. According to Bozkurt, these remote controlled insects are a viable alternative to small scale search robots. He argues that their ability to navigate difficult terrain and survive incredibly hostile environments make them ideally suited to search for disaster victims.

"They come with biological autonomy to help them survive,” he told SciAm, “and this, if carefully controlled, helps them to respond to uncertain and dynamic conditions of certain scenarios such as searching for survivors after an earthquake."

(Hat tip to Nature.)