Would you think twice before killing a cockroach if you knew it could save your life? By turning them into tiny cyborgs, Researchers at North Carolina State University are attempting to capitalize on the resilient nature of the under-appreciated insects – who yes, could plausibly survive a nuclear blast – so that they might assist in future rescue and relief efforts.
In this new video from WIRED, science communicator Derek Muller, best known for his popular YouTube channel Veritasium, checks in with the team to see how the project is coming along.
We’ve seen the concept of cyborg cockroaches pop up over the years, and as you can imagine, it’s taken some heat from animal rights activists in the past. But lead scientist Dr. Alper Bozkurt sees his “BioBots” as a valuable asset. “They’re incredibly good crawlers and climbers,” he says. “In 1999, I joined the search and rescue efforts after the earthquake in Turkey, in which about 20,000 people lost their lives. One of the difficulties was trying to figure out where the living survivors were.” The roaches, he explains, could solve that problem.
Using implanted electrodes, the team was able to hack the animals’ antennae, which send electrical signals to the brain that dictate which direction the insects should go. Essentially, they’ve turned them into living RC cars. Each cockroach is armed with a “backpack” that houses both a battery and a small, multi-directional microphone. The idea being that the sound captured could be transmitted wirelessly to first responders. “In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors,”says Bozkurt.
The electrodes were placed into the cockroaches under anesthesia, and shouldn’t cause the animals any discomfort. There are, however, other factors to consider, like the ecological ramifications of unleashing an army of cockroaches that are native to Madagascar on other parts of the world. So long as the tech holds up, the roaches could (in theory) be directed back to a collection zone after their missions have been completed.
Bozkurt explains that going forward, the team hopes to use the intrusions of cockroaches (yes, that is the collective noun for cockroaches) not only for sound recording, but also to 3D-map areas too small for standard robots, or too dangerous for humans to search. “We’ve had very successful tests in the laboratory, and the next step is to test them in simulation buildings,” he says.