Cyborg cockroaches home in on sounds of distress
Cyborg cockroaches may be the search-and-rescue teams of the future. The enhanced roaches can pinpoint the source of a noise using electric pulses delivered to their antennae, and then crawl towards it.
The cyborg roaches are the work of Alper Bozkurt and his team at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. They have built two types of audio-sensing “backpacks” that can be strapped on to Madagascar hissing cockroaches. One has a single high-resolution microphone that can identify sound sources fairly accurately. The other has a three-microphone array that gets a precise fix on the source using the amplitude information from each microphone.
Using a computer to integrate the data from a network of 10 to 15 insects, the cockroaches are then guided towards the sound source via automated electric pulses to their antennae. The nerve stimulation causes the insects to turn left or right, essentially by simulating contact with obstacles in front of them. Bozkurt presented the work at a conference in Spain last week.
Hacking cockroaches like this is nothing new. Bozkurt and his group have been working with them for the past five years, and last year a Kickstarter project made “RoboRoaches” commercially available for the very first time. But Bozkurt’s newest project moves the field into more practical applications. His team hopes the cyborg cockroaches may be used to find disaster victims, for example people buried under rubble in the aftermath of an earthquake.
“Cockroaches as a platform are certainly better in terms of performance than anything we are currently able to build, and that will remain true for many years,” says Shai Revzen at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “But one of the problems with these approaches is that they work well in the lab, where there are no distractions, but are much more tricky to apply reliably in real-world environments.”
That’s why the next stage of Bozkurt’s research is to take the insects out of the lab – though not to a terrain as complex as a dense pile of rubble, as yet. Once the lab phase is complete, his team plans to use cyborg roaches equipped with geiger counters to search for leaks in nuclear power plants.
“There are a number of applications where we can get insect-bot sensors out into the field to collect useful information,” says Bozkurt. “But in the next five or six years, we think this project will be ready to be fully deployed under the rubble.”
by Azeen Ghorayshi for NewScientist
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