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Researchers Develop Technique to Remotely Control Cockroaches

Remote control cockroach cyborgs

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a technique that uses an electronic interface to remotely control, or steer, cockroaches.

“Our aim was to determine whether we could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces,” says Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “Ultimately, we think this will allow us to create a mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information, such as finding survivors in a building that’s been destroyed by an earthquake.

“Building small-scale robots that can perform in such uncertain, dynamic conditions is enormously difficult,” Bozkurt says. “We decided to use biobotic cockroaches in place of robots, as designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at performing in such a hostile environment.”

Researchers were able to precisely steer the roaches along a curved line.

But you can’t just put sensors on a cockroach. Researchers needed to find a cost-effective and electrically safe way to control the roaches, to ensure the roaches operate within defined parameters – such as a disaster site – and to steer the roaches to specific areas of interest.

The new technique developed by Bozkurt’s team works by embedding a low-cost, light-weight, commercially-available chip with a wireless receiver and transmitter onto each roach (they used Madagascar hissing cockroaches). Weighing 0.7 grams, the cockroach backpack also contains a microcontroller that monitors the interface between the implanted electrodes and the tissue to avoid potential neural damage. The microcontroller is wired to the roach’s antennae and cerci.

The cerci are sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen, which are normally used to detect movement in the air that could indicate a predator is approaching – causing the roach to scurry away. But the researchers use the wires attached to the cerci to spur the roach into motion. The roach thinks something is sneaking up behind it and moves forward.

The wires attached to the antennae serve as electronic reins, injecting small charges into the roach’s neural tissue. The charges trick the roach into thinking that the antennae are in contact with a physical barrier, which effectively steers them in the opposite direction.

In a recent experiment, the researchers were able to use the microcontroller to precisely steer the roaches along a line that curves in different directions. Video of the experiment can be seen here.

The paper, “Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots,” was presented Aug. 28 at the 34th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society in San Diego, Calif. The paper was authored by Tahmid Latif, a Ph.D. student at NC State, and co-authored by Bozkurt. Bozkurt has previously developed similar interfaces to steer moths, using implanted electronic backpacks.

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  1. Please design such projects in a way electrodes need not to be implanted in Cerci. This is animal violence. Respect the life of every creature. Figure out a way by which there will be no biological harm in body-interface of organism you are robotizing . Wouldn’t it have been possible if other senses like lights, or temperature or pressure been applied to make insects obligatory to make turnings? I request you to consult experts on “Animal Behaviour” to make a better choice in animal you are trying to control.

  2. This is disgusting, cruel and unethical. It also sets a frightening precedent that encourages using this technology with other animals including us. I do not understand a University condoning this experiment on live creatures no matter how far down our human scale of value they fall. There are living creatures that you are shocking into controlled movements for what…your entertainment? for fame?

    This is a really dangerous and immoral.

    I urge you to discontinue this cruel work.

    I use the Kinect for many purposes and I also am a programmer and use interactive sensors, motors and microcontrollers.

    Can you really not think of a better purpose for all this time and energy? I create interactive audiovisual work and am hoping to help someone with a disability gain more access and control over their home.

    Can you not think of something better to do with all this than torture insects with a Kinect and electronics?

  3. From what I’m reading, they’re not directly controlling the cockroach’s brain (which, I believe, would have unethical concerns if that sort of technology continues). They are just tricking it into thinking it’s running into obstacles and whatnot. It’s about the same idea with horses and dogs, except instead of tricking them, we just use reins or sound cues. I don’t believe fooling cockroaches is any less ethical than putting horses on reins or training a dog to follow orders. Unless you think those are unethical too, then fair enough…

  4. In the novella “Phantom Sense,” Rick and I explored the use of hybrid insects as military surveillance platforms, with the added twist of a man/insect interface and the PTSD that would result from the disruption of that link.

    The ethics of using electrical impulses to control behavior should be an ongoing topic – but not immediately denounced. Our society is also administers drugs to children to control ADHD (without their informed consent), we use refined behavioral modification to control pets, and we have no qualms about initiating genocide against agricultural pests.

    Point is, the line between monsters and miracles is subjective. Only continuing discussion between informed parties will put us in the right place.


  5. Hey Ingvar and Adam, I have been unthinkingly killing hundreds of roaches using commercially available sprays and gels. I am willing to instead capture them and send them to you as rescue insects so you can find them a good home. Please send me your addresses…. Application: Hook them up for a game interface and sell them for ghettoites to use with their big screen tv’s and video games.

  6. If you are comparing insects to humans in protesting this, you are living your life incorrectly, and have reached a pathological state that should be addressed by psychological counseling.

    Summary: Sweet Smoking Jesus, these are cockroaches. They have neural nets instead of real brains. They are not sapient. If you are really all “value ALL life!” in your thinking, why are you not out volunteering with every spare moment.

  7. Completely agree with Ingvar Bogdahn here – there are so many avenues to explore without going down the abhorrent path of using creatures that can’t voice their objection to your apparent disregard for life and the rights of species other than homo sapiens.

  8. is it possible to mount a camera on them. I have a commercial use of looking for an endangered Australian flower in an area 100metres x100metres with a grid of 2 metres the flower is hid amongst tall grasses. The grid has GPS points along its path and turning points.

  9. I strongly disapprove with this kind of research and I ask you to reconsider the ethical meaning of what you are doing here. In my opinion, it is a manifestation of the human disrespectfulness, which is very harmful to this planet. You might say, well this is “only” a cockroach? It doesn’t matter. You are crossing a line, you are disrespectful towards Creation, to borrow a religous term here. Just because humans are superior in many qualities, doesn’t make humans superior. This is the very same kind of thinking that leads to facism. There are truly enough fascinating things to do research. We are all cockroaches. Stop treating animals like things.
    “la science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme”.
    Written by a graduate biologist.

  10. Here is an idea…take one of these roaches (a most clever design btw) and safely manufacture a bunch of them. Make them able to detect lead paint throughout walls in homes, places of worship, and all public facilities. Make them able to withstand the most harsh elements- heat, cold, dirt, water. Then set them loose. They have to be provided free as lead poisoning awareness is so costly. All humans under the sun must have access to the ability to live lead free lives, not just those who have 1% of the power and money, but 100% ! The simplest solutions can take many years to discover, but when we put our minds to something we want to manifest, amazing strides can be accomplished. We cannot unsee what we have seen but we can make the future views cleaner and safer for all. Please support lead poisoning awareness. Thank you. Peace. , we can begin to make great changes.