A Reason to Start Liking Cockroaches: Cyborg Insect Could Be a Life-saving Device

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
Giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches cling to a box. When the researchers send slight electrical charges to the neural tissue that’s located in the cockroaches' antennae, they can trick the cockroach into thinking there’s an obstacle. SUKREE SUKPLANG/REUTERS

Cyborg cockroaches could help with search and rescue missions in collapsed buildings, scientists found.

Researchers from the University of Connecticut placed tiny neuro-controllers on cockroaches to manipulate the insects' movement inside the buildings. The research, which was presented on Thursday at the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience in Philadelphia, shows that the scientists developed an easier way to control and monitor the movement of the insect.

"The use of insects as platforms for small robots has an incredible number of useful applications from search and rescue to national defense," Abhishek Dutta, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Connecticut who developed the device, said in a statement. "We believe our microcircuit provides a more sophisticated and reliable control system that brings us one step closer to real-world implementation of this technology."

The team tested the device on the Madagascar hissing cockroach. According to National Geographic, the cockroaches are about two to three inches long and can live for two to five years. The microcircuit is attached to a live cockroach through what is essentially a tiny backpack. Developing these devices has been difficult historically because of how small they have to be. To attach the device, wires from the circuit are connected to the insect's antennae lobes.

When the researchers send slight electrical charges to the neural tissue that's located in the antennae, they can trick the cockroach into thinking there's an obstacle. The cockroach will then move in another direction—the direction that the operator hoped it would. A charge to the right antenna will make a cockroach move to the left and vice versa.

Though similar devices have been developed in the past, this circuit is unique because it contains an advanced nine-axis inertial measurement unit which can track the cockroach's rotational and linear acceleration and the direction it's heading. It can also detect the temperature around the insect. By detecting the temperature, the scientists may be able to predict how the cockroaches will perform because the temperature can affect them.

But the researchers found that over time the cockroaches responded less strongly to the artificial stimuli. For example, if the cockroach turned right strongly when the first charge was sent to its left antenna, the subsequent charges wouldn't have as strong of an effect. With more research and development, the cyborg cockroaches could potentially locate people in collapsed buildings that rescue teams aren't able to enter.