Cyborg insects may be tomorrow’s heroes

By Brandon Smith

The idea of cyborg-like “biobots” has the allure of a science fiction novel, but they are real and may one day save your life.

Researchers at North Carolina State University at Raleigh have artfully adorned Madagascar hissing cockroaches with radio transmitting “backpacks,” hoping that one day they will be able to navigate earthquake rubble and explore areas exposed to radiation.

Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NCSU, co-authored the study “Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots.” The study effectively turns an ordinary cockroach into an information juggernaut he calls a “biobot.”

“It’s similar to a robot,” Bozkurt said. “We’re integrating biology into technology. You see it a lot in the medical world [in] things like pacemakers and artificial retinas. They help people stay alive, so what we are doing is taking these technologies and applying them

to other places.”

Researchers said sonar chips attached to the cockroaches will help those responding to a disaster locate survivors trapped

under rubble.

Bozkurt and a graduate student rigged a cockroach with a radio transmitter so they could manipulate its movements.

According to Bozkurt, the device sends electrical signals from a remote control to the antennae and cerci—organs that detect predators and barriers in peripheral regions. These signals then direct the cockroach to go forward, left or right.

This raises the fear of electrocuting the insect and forcing it to respond to signals because of pain; however, Coby Schal, a professor of entomology at NCSU, said this idea is far from reality.

“We understand a lot about the cockroach’s neurological system,” Schal said. “Just like when the human brain sends a signal through the muscles to control limbs, the remote sensor does the same for the cockroach. If the bug was to be zapped, it would scurry away, and that’s not the objective.”

Bozkurt said his work has never been aimed at causing pain to the insects. He explained that because he is trained as an engineer, he works closely with entomologists like Schal and other biologists to ensure the research is conducted ethically.

“We have a deep appreciation for life,” he said. “We cohabitate with these creatures. We live alongside of them, and we work with them, not against them.”

Madagascar hissing cockroaches are just one of nearly 10,000 species of cockroach. According to Schal, the industrialization of Madagascar has driven the species nearly to extinction, but it is thriving in laboratories.

“These cockroaches weigh about as much as a small mouse, so they can carry large payloads in terms of electronics,” Schal said. “They are incredibly robust and move slowly, so they are easier to manipulate. And they can live up to two years.”

Schal agrees with Bozkurt that using insects to navigate disaster zones is much more practical than building small robots because the issue of supplying power is solved.

“We’re utilizing 350 million years of evolution,” he said. “The battery component [of robotics] is the most important component. Cockroaches are already mobile, so we do not need to supply power to them.”

Bozkurt hopes his work will one day mark a time when insects can be used as large mammals were in earlier stages

of human civilization.

“Information is the new payload,” he said. “In the past, people lived and worked with large mammals like horses and oxen to build entire civilizations. Now, with the technology that we have, insects can carry information that [can] advance civilization.”

Michelle Rafacz, assistant professor of biology in the Columbia Science and Math Department, believes creating biobots has important social implications.

“Socially, this is extremely practical,” she said. “People do not respect insects in terms of their complexity. They have an incredible sense of smell and sensory capabilities that can play a huge role when it comes to helping people.”