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Remote-controlled cockroaches to the rescue!

Posting in Design

The sight of a cockroach doesn't exactly give people the warm fuzzies. But with their uncanny ability to crawl through tiny cracks, up walls or even upside-down, they could be a big help in locating survivors trapped beneath the rubble in the aftermath of a disaster such as an earthquake.

With that in mind, researchers from North Carolina State University, have developed a technique that allows the critters to be steered remotely via an electronic interface. This is accomplished by wiring them up with all kinds of gear, such as sensors, an interfacing microchip and electrodes.

If all of this is beginning to sound like some kind of diabolical insect mind control technology, it isn't really. The onboard system is comprised of a wireless receiver and transmitter chip that's connected to a microcontroller attached to the roach's antennae and cerci.

The cerci, sensory organs located on the roach's abdomen, are normally used to detect movements that suggest the presence of an approaching predator. But the researchers use the wires attached to the cerci to spur the roach to move forward by making the roach think something is sneaking up behind it. Meanwhile, the wires attached to the antennae serve as electronic reins, injecting small charges into the roach's neural tissue, which makes the roach into think that the antennae are in contact with a physical barrier, causing them to go in the opposite direction.

So, in essence, the cockroach's controlled movements is the result of clever trickery. There's no brain hijacking hi-jinx going on here, although it's curious as to why they don't just make robot versions of the cockroaches.

"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," says Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

Previously, Bozkurt has developed similar interfaces to steer moths, also using implanted electronic backpacks.

"Ultimately, we think this will allow us 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, he added.

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— By on September 13, 2012, 9:00 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure