Remote Control Roaches

September 14, 2012

Rheanna Sand


Disgusting though they may be, cockroaches are amazingly resilient creatures. They don’t really stand up to a hard smack with a shoe, but when doused in, say, concentrated hydrochloric acid, they can simply shake it off and get on with their day. At least, that’s the story one of my coworkers tells me about an encounter he had with a rogue roach in the lab a few years ago… and I believe him.

Combined with their small size and relative speed, their strength would make cockroaches useful little robots. Scientists and engineers are well aware of this - the entire field of biomimicry is essentially humans stealing good ideas from animals. But rather than designing small robots with cockroach traits, why not just commandeer the creatures themselves? Researchers Alper Bozkurt and Tahmid Latif have succeeded in doing just that.

Working out of North Carolina State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Bozkurt and Latif designed mini roach backpacks that send electrical impulses to the creatures’ antennae:


"What we do is similar to riding a horse," Bozkurt says. "[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 attached the backpacks to the roaches using magnets that they glued to the insects' backs. They used tiny stainless steel electrodes to connect the backpack's circuit board to the roach's antennae and fixed them in place with medical-grade epoxy, according to Bozkurt.

(From Nature News)


The accuracy of the controllers is apparent in this amazing video:


Bozkurt and Latif see a future where these controlled cockroaches could, for example, help search for survivors after an earthquake. Using living insects avoids the inherent problems in designing small-scale robots, and uses the evolutionary fine-tuning of the insect world to our advantage.

The one issue I can foresee? Just imagine the pranks that could come from having your own remote-controlled cockroach army! Watch out, NC State… 



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