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.




Cockroach-Inspired Robot First-Responders and Spies

Imagine a massive earthquake. The ground has buckled mightily, sending buildings and bridges tumbling. Amid the wreckage, human beings await rescue, from humans or dogs.

But what if the collapsed structure is too dangerous to risk human or canine life? How are rescuers to identify the location of survivors in time to save their lives?

Enter the cockroach robot.

Cockroaches are masters at navigating the minutest nooks and crannies. They are aptly built to squeeze through the tiniest of openings, their armor-clad carapaces jointed for flattening and twisting in seemingly impossible ways. It’s almost impossible to keep them out of the home once they are in the foundation. But it this frustrating nasty fact that has made them the perfect model for scientists of robotic development at the University of California Berkeley. (from

cockroach1CRAM, the cockroach-inspired robot that can keep moving even when squished to half its size. (Credit: Tom Libby, Kaushik Jayaram and Pauline Jennings – courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab, UC Berkeley)

Cockroaches might be repulsive to those who fear germs and creepy-crawly creatures, but there’s no doubt they’re impressive examples of animal evolution. In addition to finding that the critters can carry the equivalent of 900 times their body weight on their backs, the UC Berkeley team also found that, even when squashed down to one-quarter their size, they can still run remarkably fast.

“What’s impressive about these cockroaches is that they can run as fast through a quarter-inch (6 mm) gap as a half-inch (12 mm) gap, by reorienting their legs completely out to the side,” says Kaushik Jayaram, the leader of the study. “They’re about half an inch tall when they run freely, but can squish their bodies to one-tenth of an inch (2.5 mm) — the height of two stacked pennies.”

To develop their robot CRAM, which stands for “compressible robot with articulated mechanisms,” Jayaram first filmed the roaches using a high-speed camera. Slow-motion viewing showed him that when roaches flatten themselves out to fit through narrow cracks, they can no longer use their feet to propel themselves. Rather, they use the sensory spines on the bottom part of their legs (their tibias) to move forward. This is similar to how, if you were walking on all fours, you’d need to get down on your elbows and use your forearms to pull you through a tight space.

“They have to use different body parts to move in these spaces, because their legs and feet are not oriented to work properly,” Jayaram says. “But they are still capable of generating the large forces necessary for locomotion, which blew my mind.”

The CRAM robot uses this technique and, while it can’t quite flatten out to the degree the roach can, it is capable of being squished down to half its size while still maintaining forward locomotion. The robot was capped with a plastic shield that was capable of being deformed under pressure, which mimics the roach’s exoskeleton, something Jayaram found could smoothly slide past a variety of surfaces, including sandpaper.

The researchers believe robots similar to CRAM could one day help in disaster rescue efforts, such as finding survivors in the aftermath of an earthquake.

“In the event of an earthquake, first responders need to know if an area of rubble is stable and safe, but the challenge is, most robots can’t get into rubble,” says Robert Full, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “But if there are lots of cracks and vents and conduits, you can imagine just throwing a swarm of these robots in to locate survivors and safe entry points for first responders.”

Espionage: A New Kind of ‘Bug’?

Meanwhile, Russian scientists from the Kaliningrad-based Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University have presented a prototype of a 100-percent machine cockroach robot that they have developed for a company whose name hasn’t been disclosed.

The university’s website says the company’s requirements for the project were clear: they wanted the robot to look like an existing cockroach, act like one, and be the right size.

“Berkeley University has been working on their cockroach for the past four years, but they didn’t have to make it look like an insect, so it’s faster than ours. But it can’t turn at speed and it doesn’t look like a real cockroach at all. Whereas we were specifically told to create a cockroach robot on time and on budget,” the project’s head engineer, Aleksey Belousov, explains.


I would guess if it is to be used for spying, such attention to detail would be vital.

The robot is about 10cm long, moves with a speed of up to 30cm per second (one-third the speed of a real cockroach), is equipped with light sensors, contact and non-contact probes that allow it to move without bumping into things.

So far it can work autonomously for 20 minutes, but the scientists plan to stretch that time. Eventually, the robot will also get its own navigation system to allow users to program its route.


Researchers also promise to produce a camo version next week especially for the Russian military, which has already expressed interest in the robot because it can carry a weight of up to 10 grams and could potentially carry portable cameras into enclosed spaces.

The possibilities are limitless, especially of such bugs are glued to the inside of paper shopping bags. Ever had roaches get into your house in shopping bags? Neat way to infiltrate, and almost impossible to prevent.


Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Rwanda

Medical Drones
A drone flies above the Wise County Fairgrounds before lowering a package of prescription medication at the RAM (Remote Area Medical) clinic in Wise County, Va., Friday, July 17, 2015. (David Crigger/The Bristol Herald-Courier via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

We’ve heard the discussions about drones and how they are invading our privacy and adding a new layer of removal in warfare. In the United States, drones are used as toys and spy equipment and as sports observation platforms. They are also being eyed for delivery of must-have items from Amazon.

But in Rwanda, and elsewhere around the world, drones could be life-saving equipment.

In Africa, drones are being used to help conservation efforts of protected species, such as  elephants and rhinos. Human conservators cannot cover nearly the distance in time that a drone can cover, so this makes perfect sense.


Now, drones may be used to help humans on the continent, as well. Drones will now be used to deliver medical supplies to the hard-to-reach rural areas of Rwanda and elsewhere. Cargo drones are useful wherever there is a lack of roads. Additionally, they are perhaps less likely to be waylaid or hijacked than are motocycles or vans delivering the same supplies in areas not well guarded by the police or militia.


Just as mobile phones arrived to connect the disjointed landscape lacking in landline infrastructure in all kinds of new ways, some imagine that drones can have the same revolutionary impact. (From

Paved roads and other infrastructure aren’t always available in rural areas of Africa, making it very difficult to quickly deliver medical supplies to those who need them most. Operating our of droneports, delivery drones would fly out from the hub and travel up to 100 km (62 miles) to take medical and other urgent supplies to where they’re needed.


The Droneport will offer the remote aircraft a safe place to take off and land, and serve as a manufacturing center for the drones themselves. It will also include a health clinic, digital fabrication shop, post and courier room, and an e-commerce trading hub. All of which are intended to help generate local employment.

In Rwanda, there will be two drone networks operating. The Red line will operate with smaller drones for medical and emergency supplies, while a commercial Blue line would transport larger payloads like spare parts, electronics, and e-commerce.


The latest initiative sees the Rwandan government enlisting the services of an American robotics company called Zipline, with the aim of carrying blood and urgent medical supplies to rural areas. It will start with the construction of three drone ports in Muhanga District, with a pilot phase slated to have begun in 2016.

All being well, Foster + Partners will then construct three Droneports by 2020. The firm reckons that up to 44 percent of Rwanda would be covered by the delivery network.

More distant plans include the possibility of creating over 40 Droneports across the country in the future, and expanding into neighboring Congo.

Kinetic Energy to Power Cell Phones


“Human walking carries a lot of energy,” says professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Tom Krupenkin. “Theoretical estimates show that it can produce up to 10 watts per shoe, and that energy is just wasted as heat. A total of 20 watts from walking is not a small thing, especially compared to the power requirements of the majority of modern mobile devices.” (Reported in

Through energy harvesting tiles, backpacks, and insoles, there has been much talk about harnessing kinetic energy to power mobile devices and other electronics. A team of researchers is claiming to have made a big breakthrough in the collective effort to turn human motion into usable energy, developing a new method of producing useful amounts of electricity from our footsteps.

The biggest obstacle has been how to harvest the kinetic energy produced by our footfalls. But the researchers at UW-Madison think they have found an answer: reverse electrowetting, a new technology involving a conductive liquid that interacts with a nanofilm-coated surface to produce electrical energy.

The difficulty with this technology is that it requires an energy source with a reasonably high frequency, higher than that produced by human motion.

Bubbles Are the Answer

To address this problem, the researchers combined reverse electrowetting with a novel device called a bubbler in an effort to bridge the gap. The bubbler contains no moving mechanical parts, but is made up of two flat plates with a conductive liquid in between. In the bottom plate, tiny holes allow pressurized gas to enter, which in turn forms bubbles. These grow in size until they make contact with the top plate and burst. The rapid, ongoing production and bursting of bubbles washes the conductive fluid back and forth to generate an electrical charge.

They claim that theoretical estimates indicate up to 10 kW might be possible. The shoes could be used to power mobile devices through a charging cable, be adapted for the military, or act as a power source for people in remote areas and developing countries.

Krupenkin and J. Ashley Taylor, a senior scientist in UW–Madison’s Mechanical Engineering Department, have created a startup company called InStep NanoPower, and are seeking industry partners to commercialize the technology. They have already teamed with Vibram in develop a demonstrator shoe with the energy-harvesting technology embedded in the sole.

(Temporary) Housing in Shipping Containers

container9This option of using shipping containers for housing made me think of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where housing of athletes will be tight, and hotel rooms for visitors to the Olympics will be almost impossible to find or afford. Many folks are turning to renting private rooms and apartments for the Games.

Originally, the plan was to build a Y-shaped pier in Rio’s harbor, adding thousands of feet to the existing piers, where six cruise ships could dock for the duration of the Games, thus providing thousands of rooms in a space-challenged city that has an inadequate number of hotels to house the numbers expected for the Games. Long story short, the money for that project “disappeared” in the build-up to the World Cup, and now Rio has a shortage of rooms for the Olympics.

How great would it have been to use shipping containers as temporary housing for the Games, as is planned in Copenhagen for their student housing?

Copenhagen’s CPH Containers aims to create low-cost, container-based student homes for installation on underdeveloped land.

container1CPH will begin construction on a “student village” later this year.

container4This is not a new idea. Such villages have been built in South Africa, London, the US, and elsewhere, and have proven supremely useful, and surprisingly stylish.

The prototype container home, dubbed CPH Shelter, is made from a 40-ft (12-m) recycled shipping container, and features an additional two-floor polycarbonate structure.

container3The container home’s interior comprises a lounge/dining area, kitchen, bedroom with daybed, and a bathroom with shower and toilet.

container5These homes offer tempting benefits: container structures are easy to construct and are easy to dismantle and move, with no significant foundations required. There’s also the environmental benefit of building with recycled materials to consider. However, the positives must be weighed against a container’s lack of insulation and the difficulty of keeping it cool in summer and warm in winter.

To address this, CPH Containers has installed wood fiber and paper-wool insulation, in addition to an automated mechanical ventilation system in the bathroom and kitchen. The firm also says that its polycarbonate winter garden offers warmth on a sunny day (though an efficient heat pump is also installed).

container2Given the popularity of tiny houses these days, I suspect that land-strapped cities around the world might give these pre-fab homes another look. Certainly, they could be a useful idea for any city hosting the Olympics or other major event that draws millions to a city temporarily.