Cockroaches are known to be able to survive a nuclear explosion – and once day they could be saving trapped victims in a variety of disasters. Researchers have fitted the hardy creatures with electrical backpacks complete with tiny microphones to detect the faintest of sounds. The idea is that cyborg cockroaches, or ‘biobots’, could enter crumpled buildings hit by earthquakes, for example, and help emergency workers find survivors.
‘In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors,’ said Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University. ‘The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter - like people calling for help - from sounds that don’t matter - like a leaking pipe. ‘Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero-in on where those sounds are coming from.’
The ‘backpacks’ control the robo-roach’s movements because they are wired to the insect’s cerci - sensory organs that cockroaches usually use to feel if their abdomens brush against something. By electrically stimulating the cerci, cockroaches can be prompted to move in a certain direction. In fact, they have been programmed to seek out sound. One type of ‘backpack’ is equipped with an array of three directional microphones to detect the direction of the sound and steer the biobot in the right direction towards it. Another type is fitted with a single microphone to capture sound from any direction, which can be wirelessly transmitted - perhaps in the future to emergency workers. They ‘worked well’ in lab tests and the experts have developed technology that can be used as an ‘invisible fence’ to keep the biobots in a certain area such as a disaster area, the researchers announced at the IEEE Sensors 2014 conference in Valencia, Spain. A previous study led by Dr Edgar Lobaton, who is also at the university, showed that biobots can be used to map a disaster area. Dr Lobaton and Professor Bozkurt plan on merging their research to both map disaster areas and pinpoint survivors.
BIOBOTS CAN BE FENCED IN
Professor Bozkurt’s team has recently demonstrated technology that creates an invisible fence for keeping biobots in a defined area. This is significant because it could be used to keep them at a disaster site and to keep the biobots within range of each other so that they can be used as a reliable mobile wireless network. The technology could also be used to steer biobots to light sources, so that tiny solar panels on biobot backpacks can be recharged.
CONSUMER KITS ARE AVAILABLE TO CREATE CYBORG INSECTS
The idea of turning cockroaches into cyborg slaves is not new, Gizmodo reported. Kits are available for under $100 (£63) that enable people to control their own insect by stimulating its antennae with electrical signals. This lets people ‘drive’ an insect for a few minutes. While the creators of the ‘Roboroach kit’ claim the cockroach forgets the experience after 20 minutes, some people think it is cruel.