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NC State Researchers Figure Out How To Steer Cockroaches Via Remote Control

A roach hooked up to a computer controlled by video game software.
Alper Bozkurt

Do you ever wish that you could control roaches? That technology has now been developed, thanks to researchers at North Carolina State University. 

Unfortunately, it requires catching the roaches first.

Researchers at NC State have figured out how to put cockroaches on autopilot using video game software and a small computer attached to the roach’s back. They are able to steer the bugs on a path that has been plotted out digitally, and they use a Microsoft software called Kinect to sense the insects' movements. Researchers say that the technology could be useful for mapping collapsed buildings or disaster areas.

The NC State research lab posted this video of a roach being guided remotely in an experiment:

Dr. Alper Bozkurt is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

“Our goal is to be able to guide these roaches as efficiently as possible,” Bozkurt said in a statement from NC State. “We want to build on this program…to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites.  The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation.”

The research team says that roaches could also be outfitted with microphones and speakers, which would allow rescuers to detect individuals trapped in collapsed buildings who are calling for help. Rescuers could respond to their calls via speakers attached to the insects’ bodies.

A computerized roach and the Kinect system used with it.
Credit Alper Bozkurt
A computerized roach and the Kinect system used with it.

The computers harnessed to the roaches’ bodies connect to their antennae and cerci (sensory appendages on the insect’s hind segment) and send small electric charges to propel the insects into motion.

The research team will present their paper at the 35th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society July 4 in Osaka, Japan.

Laura moved from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill in 2013 to join WUNC as a web producer. She graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the spring of 2012 and has created radio and multimedia stories for a variety of outlets, including Marketplace, Prairie Public, and Maine Public Broadcasting. When she's not out hunting stories, you can usually find her playing the fiddle.
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