It appears that the fastest growing field of robotics is cockroaches.  Once thought to be the domain of Roachbot and Roachbot 2.0, researchers from the university of North Carolina have raised the bar further with what has got to be the first functioning cyborg cockroach.

The purpose of the robo-roaches, which they call biobots, is to control a living organism while retaining and using its natural instincts to navigate hazardous terrain that would be too unpredictable for pure robots.  This could be especially useful in search and rescue missions following disasters.

A cockroach’s vision is much more limited than you may think.  When you try to smack one with a newspaper and they scurry away with ninja-like precision they are actually relying on their sense of touch rather than sight.  They use their antennae to detect obstacles to avoid with razor sharp reflexes faster than their eyes can register.

For this experiment, a Madagascar hissing cockroach was chosen for its large size and slower, more managable speed.  It was put to sleep by lowering the temperature to 4℃。 Then the ends of its antenna were removed and replaced with wires connected to a small circuit board attached to the back and grounded in the side.

After the roach was given time to recover from its cybernetic implants. It was time to take a test drive.

A blue curving line was marked out along the floor as the target path of the roach.  By sending a mild electric signal into either the left or right antenna the “driver” could cause the roach to sense an obstacle sending it in the opposite direction.

Although the researchers were able to manipulate the roach’s movement along the line, the consistency of this was only around 10% percent.  One reason for this was an occasionally weak connection between the wires and the roach.

The weight of the pack was also an issue.  As we all know from watching the Jersey Shore, the average Madagascar hissing cockroach can carry over 5g. This backpack was 4g which was within the limit but still heavy enough to hamper the roach’s movement.  However, a new backpack was developed weighing only 0.5g which looks promising.

This was only a part of a series of experiments to stimulate actions of insects for the purpose of controlling them.  Previously they were able to control the flight and walking of moths.

Although I’m really fond of the idea to make cockroaches our robotic slaves, it seems in every movie where people do thing kind of stuff things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Source: Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots by Tahmid Latif & Alper Bozkurt (English) via Itai News (Japanese)

▼A successful run of the blue line course.  You can see when a signal is sent to the antennae by the L and R at the corners of the screen.

▼A schematic if you’d like to try and make your own.

[ Read in Japanese ]