What I’m talking about here might sound like science fiction, but it’s not
The title “Is Cyborg-Cockroach a Perfect Lifesaver?” reminds me of one of my favorite novels by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The association is justified, because what I’m talking about here sounds like science fiction. It’s not about building a robotic cockroach, but transforming a live cockroach into a cyborg. The aim is to help locate and rescue victims of disasters who are stuck in hard-to-reach places.
This doesn’t sound easy and surely there must be issues around animal rights? But, as you can see below, the Cyborg-Cockroach programme is actually a real project. Let me explain…
The ultimate rescue worker?
We have still not come up with an effective method of searching for people trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings or mine corridors.
Where robots fear to tread…
In 2012, researchers from North Carolina State University came up with the idea that instead of using large dogs (that might get injured) or unreliable/fragile robots (that might break), they could use agile and superfast cockroaches that could easily reach the smallest and deepest of spaces.
But how? The researchers worked with Madagascar hissing cockroaches that can grow up to 8cm long. They attached electrodes to their antennae, connecting these electrodes to tiny backpacks equipped with human voice detection and tracking devices.
How do these Cyborg-Cockroaches work?
The insect has this little backpack — a small 3D printed plastic platform — glued to its back. It carries all of the necessary electronic components, including a printed circuit board that acts as a microcontroller.
Researchers can control which way the cockroach moves
Small electrodes slide on to it and are glued to antennas, which stimulate the cockroach’s neurons that control its motor functions. By using electrostimulation, the researchers are able to control the direction of the Cyborg-Cockroach’s movement: a pulse sent to the right antenna triggers a left turn, and a pulse sent to the left one… you get the idea.
A wireless link transmits information about environmental conditions, the position of the cockroach and any nearby sounds back to base. If the sound analysing computer algorithm considers the sound to be of human origin, it can use all of the information to coordinate the movement of numerous Cyborg-Cockroaches so that they move towards potential victims of a disaster.
The insect’s electronics are fed by a three-volt lithium-polymer battery weighing 0.5 grams. Researchers are also considering solar power — it takes less than two hours of sun exposure to fully charge the tiny battery.
Shouldn’t this be considered cockroach cruelty?
Good question. The researchers say that the procedures they carry out on cockroaches include only microstimulation, which has nothing to do with pain impulses.
Prof Hong Liang claims a 60% success rate
Cockroaches use their antennae to choose their direction of travel and do so by capturing information from the environment and transferring it to their brains. In this case, the electrodes attached by the research scientists mimic the role played by the environment.
Another team is also searching for methods whereby cockroaches can be remotely controlled. This team is headed by Professor Hong Liang who has managed to make the animals move in a way that complies with 60 per cent of the team’s commands.
“We prevent them from working too long. We let them rest,” says Hong Liang, who oversees the research. She also says that she loves cockroaches, which, contrary to popular belief, are very hygienic insects. Liang is currently seeking a less invasive method to remotely control the animal’s movements by using a vibration motor placed near the antennas.
I strongly believe that these approaches are acceptable considering the lives that could be saved. However, I am not convinced by the idea of creating a commercially available kit for self-cyborging cockroaches. Would such a kit be used for science or just for fun?
In 2013, an American company, Backyard Brains, successfully used Kickstarter to raise funds for RoboRoach – a product that worked in a similar way as the solution described above.
The company provides instructions for installing the backpack on the insect’s back and equipping its antennas with electrodes. This initiative faced strong opposition from animal rights activists who believed that the set encouraged children to treat living beings as toys without taking into account what would happen to the cockroaches after they had been used as “cyborgs.” I strongly support their arguments.