Robo-Roaches: Redux

I’ve never been a big fan of the Frankenstein or Dracula oeuvre. Truth is, I am greatly disturbed by the manipulation of the natural order. I detested H. G. Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau. All I can think about is the psychic anguish of the laboratory creatures.

So, I am a bit disturbed by the latest research with cockroaches. Sure, they’re cockroaches, but they are independently functioning creatures. I’m not sure about using them as live-specimen robots.

I posted yesterday about research being conducted to create cockroach-inspired robots as first-responders after a disaster, or for use in espionage.

Today, I write about cockroach robots themselves, actual cockroaches that are being wired for control by humans. Not science fiction. Reality.


Years in the making, and a contender for the most revolting creation to emerge from a laboratory, the robo-roach has arrived.

Built by engineers in Texas, the robotic insect fuses a live cockroach with a miniature computer that is wired into the animal’s nervous system. At the push of a button, a human operator can control the creature — or at least which way it scuttles.

Power to the Insects

Hong Liang, who led the research at Texas A&M University, said the controllable insect could carry tiny video cameras, microphones, and other sensors to gather information from places where humans would rather not be: collapsed buildings, broken sewers, and politician’s hotel rooms.

“Insects can do things a robot cannot. They can go into small places, sense the environment, and if there’s movement, from a predator say, they can escape much better than a system designed by a human,” Liang told the Guardian. “We wanted to find ways to work with them.”

The US team made tiny backpacks for the cockroaches and attached them to the roaches with paint. Each backpack contained a computer chip that could send signals down a pair of fine wires into nerves that controlled legs on either side of the cockroach. With a rechargeable lithium battery to power the device, the total weight of the backpack was less than 3g, approximately the weight of a U.S. penny.

Stutter-Step Turns

The scientists remotely control the direction in which the cockroach walks by stimulating nerves on either side of its body. When cockroaches walk, the three legs on each side move in time with each other. But the electrical pulses disrupt this, making the middle leg fall out of step with the others. If you pulse the left leg, the legs on the right side work in concert, and the body turns toward the weaker left side. Sort of like paddling a canoe: if the oars on the right side work in concert and the oars on the left are out of step, the canoe will turn toward the left. And vice versa.

The system is far from perfect. In tests when robotic roaches were held on little leashes, the insects could be steered about 70 percent of the time. But when the insects were left to roam free, the remote control worked only 60 percent of the time. It might take several jabs of the button to make them turn, even then. Liang is not disheartened though: the robotic cockroach, reported in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, is still a prototype.

How useful robotic roaches prove to be will depend in part on how much gadgetry they can carry. Liang says that some cockroaches can carry five times their own body weight, but the heavier the load, the greater the toll it takes on their performance. “We did an endurance test and they do get tired,” Liang said. “We put them on a treadmill for a minute and then let them rest. If the backpack is lighter, they can go on for longer.”

Ethical Issues?

Sethu Vijayakumar, director of the Institute of Perception, Action and Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh, has reservations about the work. “As much as the technology is interesting, there are a lot of ethical issues before we go down that line, even with cockroaches. Whenever you interface with another biological system, you have to look at whether the means justifies the ends. It’s something we have to debate,” he said.

Even with cockroaches, perhaps we must consider self-determination. There, I actually said it.



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