Take one Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. Strap a wireless receiver, some electrodes, a battery, and a microcontroller to its back. What do you have?
A recipe for most people to shriek “ew” and get up on a chair, sure… but you also have a potential new ally for first responders and reconnaissance teams. Researchers at North Carolina State University have been experimenting with remote-controlled cucarachas, literally steered by wireless signals that electrically stimulate the insects’ antennae. The process is “similar to riding a horse,” says Professor Alper Bozkurt – stimulate a roach on one side, and it naturally turns toward the other. The team has modulated its pulses so they can control the sharpness and speed of turns without causing damage to their subjects’ neural tissue.
Nimble, fearless, and famously indestructible, a field-deployable team of cockroaches armed with this wireless harness and advanced micro-sensors could one day swarm into a collapsed structure or navigate a region contaminated by toxic release, have a look around, and tell human rescuers what’s what. It’s a logical step between current technology and the still fairly far-off idea of small-scale robots that could one day do a similar job. Moreover, as Bozkurt points out, millions of years of cockroach evolution provide a ready-made intelligence platform suited to survival. The machine intelligence of swarm-bots, no matter how advanced or nimble, may never manage to duplicate the instinctive ability of cockroaches to navigate hostile environments and react to threats.
The team is currently working on further shrinking the cockroaches’ “backpack” of control systems (currently about an inch long and a couple of ounces) and fine-tuning the level of navigational control they have over the little creatures. We may never be happy to see a roach in the pantry, but they might one day provide crucial intelligence to save lives in disaster areas.