How to remotely control cockroach cyborgs

Send in the WiFi-controlled cockroaches! (Minority Report alert)
September 27, 2012

Remote-controlled cockroach cyborg (credit: Tahmid Latif, Alper Bozkurt)

A technique to remotely control cockroaches has been developed by Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering of North Carolina State University.

Bozkurt, co-author of a paper on the work, wanted to see if he could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, “which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces.”

In a scene right of Minority Report, Bozkurt plans to create a “mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information, such as finding survivors in a building that’s been destroyed by an earthquake.

“Building small-scale robots that can perform in such uncertain, dynamic conditions is enormously difficult. We decided to use biobotic cockroaches in place of robots, as designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at performing in such a hostile environment.”

Steering roaches via WiFi

System-on-chip card using a Texas Instruments CC2530 ZigBee chip (credit: Tahmid Latif, Alper Bozkurt)

The team embedded a low-cost, lightweight, commercially available chip with a WiFi wireless receiver and transmitter onto each cockroach. Weighing 0.7 grams, the cockroach backpack also contains a microcontroller that monitors the interface between the implanted electrodes and the tissue to avoid potential neural damage.

The microcontroller is wired to the roach’s antennas and cerci (sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen, which are normally used to detect movement in the air that could indicate a predator is approaching — causing the roach to scurry away).

But the researchers use the wires attached to the cerci to spur the roach into motion. The roach thinks something is sneaking up behind it and moves forward.

The wires attached to the antennas serve as electronic reins, injecting small charges into the roach’s neural tissue. The charges trick the roach into thinking that the antennas are in contact with a physical barrier, which effectively steers them in the opposite direction.

In a recent experiment, the researchers were able to use the microcontroller to precisely steer the roaches along a line that curves in different directions, as shown in the video below.

They presented the work at the 34th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society in San Diego, California (open access PDF).