How a robotic roach could save your life - 19 Action News|Cleveland, OH|News, Weather, Sports

How a robotic roach could save your life

Scientists have been trying for years to design miniature robots to fit into small spaces that human eyes and hands are unable to reach.

Shrinking technology is complicated and expensive, but a researcher at North Carolina State University may have a solution.

If there is an earthquake or a nuclear meltdown, the first responders sent inside damaged structures to check for survivors could be robotic cockroaches.

"They're easy to find, they are cheap, you can find them in pet stores," says Dr. Alper Bozkurt who is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University.

But not any bug is fit to be a 'biobot.'

Roaches can survive almost anything, but unlike the kind crawling in your kitchen, the Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) is slow enough to be steered and big enough to carry a payload.

"Their electronic backpacks weigh just a few grams, but can transmit a vast amount of digital data," Bozkurt says.

Some of the digital data these insects can transmit include sound, gas concentration, light information and even a miniature camera.

The idea is to use an army of roach biobots whose backpacks are all connected to a central computer collecting data as they roam around areas that we can't reach.

This could be useful in trying to locate survivors at the scene of a natural or man-made disaster.

"We live in the information era and we can fit a lot of information into millimeter scale," Bozkurt states.

Scientists can also fit electrodes into the insects' antennas, allowing remote-controlled navigation to make the cockroach walk to the left, right or make a U-turn.

"You're basically in a dynamic and uncertain environment and your robot can get trapped, but with insects they can easily find their way out," Bozkurt says. 

Even if they don't, there are plenty more roaches and the digital backpacks cost only a few dollars.

They are far less expensive than losing a human life during a rescue.

Cockroaches are very complex, well-constructed creatures.

"When somebody kills an insect, I feel like someone is smashing a smart phone with their hammer," Bozkurt says.  

While researchers still need to fine-tune this technology, these bugs may soon be put to work changing what we call 'pests' into life-saving pioneers.

The remote control doesn't completely move the roaches.

Actually, researchers will rely most on their random walking, with only small left and right turns.

They're also trying this out on moths whose flight can give scientists 3D data.


Additional Information:

The following information is from an article published by North Carolina State University entitled "Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots" (

  • Technology falls short in offering "centimeter-scale" mobile robots to work under extreme environmental conditions, whereas insects can navigate through a variety of environments and obstacles.
  • This study uses neural stimulation to wirelessly navigate cockroaches to follow lines, acting as terrestrial biobots.
  • Electrical pulses are applied to the insect to create biochemical and sensory changes, allowing the insect to be "steered." Similar to a horse and bridle system with reins.
  • The biobots may be able to help humans in search-and-rescue events to locate hazardous material or find victims.
  • Using the technology on hawkmoths, they were able to start and stop flight, adjust take-off and change their walking direction on land.
  • Cockroaches have two antennae, two cerci (hair-like appendages) at their rear and three pairs of legs.
  • The antenna are used for smell, touch, thermal and humidity cues.
  • Roaches navigate via the touch sense from their antennae.
  • Gromphadorhina portentosa is known as the Madagascar Hissing cockroach.
  • They are large (approx. 50-75mm), slower (approx. 3cm/s), live longer (approx. 2 years) and are more agile and robust than other roach species.
  • They are commercially available in pet stores.
  • Stainless steel electrodes were used to apply the stimulation pulses. One end of the wire is soldered to a circuit board, the other end is inserted into the antenna.
  • The roaches were anesthetized by cold-treatment during the procedure. Invertebrates do not sense pain.
  • Synthetic glue seals the electrode into the antenna and the roaches were allowed time to recuperate.
  • The backpack weighs about 4 grams.
  • The cockroaches were made to follow an S-shaped line while the results were video-recorded.
  • An operator, using a simple remote control is able to "steer" the insect.
  • Roaches were able to navigate in both directions.
  • It was observations, stimulus caused the roach to stop and turn accordingly.
  • While the hissing roaches have more than 5g of payload carrying capacity, the weight of the backpack adversely affected the stimulation results.
  • Simple right/left movement was easier to achieve than walking the S-shape in two directions (success rate: 10%).
  • The team will continue looking into the use of the technology on moths, although the insects have proved harder to navigate in flight.
  • With the moths, the electrodes are inserted while the insect is still in pupa stage, allowing the device to grow into the developing moth.

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