Remote-controlled roaches: The ultimate emergency service

Next time there is an earthquake, we can rely on remote-controlled cockroaches to crawl through the rubble of buildings and save the people trapped inside. That’s the vision of researchers at North Carolina State University, who have been putting the bugs through obstacle courses using Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect technology as a guide – and Dr. Alper Bozkurt says it’s all going to plan.

Metro: How are the little guys doing?

Bozkurt: We have three out of ten cockroaches follow the line perfectly, and they will show us why the other seven are not. It’s like surgery to make them ‘biobots’, we send a pulse and they respond differently according to their own anatomies and variances such as light.

How do you get them in the mood? Heavy rap music?

Their behavior is controlled by reflex, so if you give them the correct environmental stimulation the brain is not involved.

When and how will you send them into battle?

The plan is to send swarms into destroyed buildings with a backpack carrying a radio, sensors and microphone to detect calls for help. In three years we will live test with a full-scale model.

Parents worry about their kids. Can you remote control them?

With insects it’s easy to override the system, with larger animals there are more complex cognitive and behavioral systems. Also there are ethical issues, insects don’t have pain receptors. I think there is a team in New York trying to control rats, and we me be able to produce a computer programme to train dogs.

Is it fun to remote-control cockroaches?

We’re very careful to respect the research and the insects. The fun part is when it successfully follows the line. In my house we never kill insects, even when my children found a black widow spider. I hope we can create more respect for insects, like with horses and cats.


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