Cyborg Cockroaches Can Now Be Used to Save Lives

Cyborg cockroaches who save lives might seem like the premise of a new cartoon series — or maybe a horror film — but they’re actually the latest innovation in search and rescue technology.North Carolina State University researchers have outfitted the normal sensory apparatuses of “roboroaches” with microphones, allowing them to seek out the source of a sound. The idea is that these “biobots” will now be able to find humans trapped in enclosed spaces, such as disaster survivors.

Cyborg roaches themselves are nothing new, if you can believe it. In fact, there are plenty of Roboroach kits available for purchase that microstimulate cockroaches’ antennae with electrical signals, thus allowing you to cheaply control your very own cockroach. Essentially, it’s like steering a horse with reins, but instead of a horse, it’s a cockroach, and instead of leather reins, they’re electrodes strapped to the head of a bug.

“It is truly an exciting time in the physical computing and robotics industry because of how many new innovations like this are coming up on a regular basis. While these machines are amazing it is also important to note that they are largely remote-controlled. This means a human can use them to connect with things or reach things or aid in things they once couldn’t,” explains Tom Ajello, Co-Founder of MAKEABLE.

These search-and-rescue cyborg cockroaches are something new, however. The researchers have created two new types of cockroach cyborgs. The first type has a single microphone that can capture sound from any direction, which then gets transmitted to first responders. The second type has an array of three direction microphones used to detect a sound’s origin.

The researchers have developed algorithms to analyze what the microphones pick up, localize the sounds, and then steer the cockroach cyborg towards them.

“The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter – like people calling for help – from sounds that don’t matter – like a leaking pipe,” said Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and senior author of two papers on the work. “Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero in on where those sounds are coming from.”

Whether or not some people would prefer remaining trapped to being saved by cyborg cockroaches, however, remains to be determined.

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