Cyborg Cockroaches: Coming Soon to a Disaster Zone Near You


Researchers strapped battery packs onto cockroaches to allow them to detect signs of life in disaster areas. CARLOS SANCHEZ, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
Researchers strapped battery packs onto cockroaches to allow them to detect signs of life in disaster areas. CARLOS SANCHEZ, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY

The thing about cockroaches is that they're gross. And annoying. They seem to have a preternatural ability to make a person's skin crawl. But all that natural scurrying into dark corners might have a payoff.

A team of researchers at Texas A&M University is currently working on a project to remotely control cockroaches using a battery pack and stimulators. Believe it or not, the goal isn't to drive every last one of the insects out of Lone Star State houses, kitchens and office buildings Pied Piper style. It's to use the creepy crawlers to get into dangerous and hard-to-reach places during natural disasters and search-and-rescue missions.

“There's an advantage to using cockroaches because they have natural instincts,” Dr. Hong Liang, a mechanical engineering professor at Texas A&M who leads the project, says. “They go to the small spaces, and they kind of sense their surroundings very quickly.” That natural instinct is what distinguishes a remote-controlled insect from robots and drones. The goal is to use the electronic controls to supplement cockroaches' innate ability to get into small, dark areas and avoid danger.

The Texas A&M team steers their cockroaches by implanting sensors into each insect's prothoracic ganglion, groups of neurons that control different muscle functions. Wires from the ganglion are connected to a battery pack designed to receive signals. The remote control sends a small shock through wires to the ganglion, which causes the roach to lose its balance and then cede control to a human operator up to 50 feet (15 meters) away. The success rate is 60 percent.

Liang says most of the cockroaches that they use are from South America, a bigger (2 inches or 5 centimeters long) and heartier version of the bugs that the team envisions one day being equipped with a small photo or video camera. These creepy crawlers could then be sent into a disaster area to provide footage and look for signs of life.

The Texas A&M group is currently looking for funding to test how the cyborg insects might be used in real life. They've also started thinking about other insects that might prove useful when equipped with a remote control. That includes grasshoppers and certain flying bugs. “I think that most insects can be controlled now by using electronics,” Liang says.

In the meantime, the cockroaches seem to be working just fine. “Cockroaches are probably the easiest and best way to do this because they are low cost and people hate them,” Liang says.

NOW THAT'S COOL

Unlike humans and other creatures, cockroaches don't have red blood vessels that carry oxygen throughout their bodies. Instead, their tube-like tracheas deliver oxygen directly to cells. The trachea is located lower down the insect's body, which is why a cockroach can go on living and breathing for roughly a week after losing its head.

More to Explore