There aren’t many people who like roaches, much less find them useful in any significant way. In fact, most of us would put in an immediate call to our pest control technician. However, these creepy, bacteria-covered bugs might actually be life savers if research scientists have anything to do with it.
Researchers are examining whether roaches can be used to help find buried or trapped victims of natural disasters. As the old adage goes, roaches could survive till the end of time. Their tough exterior make them harder to hurt or kill and they also have sharp instincts that allow them to quickly move out of the way of danger. For these reasons, scientists have identified them as perfect responders during disasters where time is of the essence. Instead of waiting for machinery to remove debris, these new “cyborg” roaches can be sent in to find people in need of help. But how will they be able to alert rescuers?
The roaches have surgically implanted electrodes in their antennae and cerci that allow them to be manipulated through electrical impulses. On their back will be a locator beacon and a tiny microphone that will transmit any sounds from individuals who are trapped and need assistance. Researchers are hoping that they will also be able to affix a small camera so they can retrieve images of the disaster area.
The antennae of these roaches will allow them to move about, as they use their antennae as sensors. The electrodes attached to their cerci will stimulate them to move in a forward motion. However, all the testing so far has been conducted on flat surfaces, so it has yet to be determined how well they would do when traveling through a more treacherous landscape.
Of course, this knowledge doesn’t mean that roaches are welcome in your home and that a call to your local pest control company isn’t in order!
Can you explain exactly how you are able to steer the biobots?
We use electric pulses to stimulate their antenna sensor cells, making them think there is an obstacle to navigate around.
Cockroaches use their antennae as touch sensors, similar to the way a blind person might use their hands to recognize the environment. So when we stimulate the antennal sensor on the roach’s right side, it makes a left turn, and vice versa. We also stimulate their cerci to make them go forward. Cerci are the sensors at the very back of the insect that sense any predator behind.
(See pictures of animal robots—marine machines made in nature’s image.)
Do the electrical pulses hurt the roaches?
No, there are a lot of scientific papers and evidence that show that invertebrates don’t have the sense of pain as we, humans, perceive it. So it was not like we were zapping them and they were reacting to pain. Their reflexes were simply navigating them around perceived obstacles.
We don’t want to torture cockroaches. Actually, we hope that our research will help the public to appreciate the importance and complexity of these little folks that we share an ecosystem with. Personally, I can’t even kill pest insects at home since I appreciate them so much!