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Some Day These Cockroaches May Save Your Life

To help rescue people in disaster settings, researchers at N.C. State are turning to one of nature's most resilient - and, let's face it, repulsive - creatures: cockroaches. The researchers are in the early stages of using what they call “cyborg cockroaches” to collect sound and gather data.

Let's get this out of the way: people hate cockroaches. In fact, N.C. State’s Entomology Department studies how to repel the little insects.

About four years ago, that department got an unusual request. Engineering professors Alper Bozkurt and Mihail Sichitiu wanted to use some of the roaches to help people. 

Sichitiu says the roach repellers said, take ‘em.

“Despite the fact that they like to find ways to get rid of it, they love insects,” Sichitiu says. “They would like to see them being used for other purposes.”

He and Bozkurt want to use them to find people trapped in disaster settings.

In the iBionicS Lab at N.C. State, Bozkurt reached for a roach and asked a grad student with a laugh, “Is it one of our heroes?”

The roach is half the size of his palm.

“This is the size that you generally see in Indiana Jones movies,” Bozkurt says.

He’s absurdly nonchalant as it slowly crawls around his hand. It's called a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

“You can hear the hiss sound,” he says as the roach lets out what can only be described as a disgusting hiss. 

But before you get too grossed out, let's explain why Bozkurt chose roaches. They're incredibly resilient and experts at navigating through tiny spaces. The Madagascar roach is much slower than your household variety, and they can carry about five grams of equipment:

“Tiny backpacks with microphones and tiny radios and tiny batteries to transmit that information outside,” Bozkurt says.

They're still figuring out the best strategy for using them. Engineering professor Edgar Lobaton says one idea is basically just to strap the backpacks on and let ‘em roam.

“We're thinking of them as a swarm,” he says. “Instead of having an individual making a small measurement here and there, we actually have a crowd making small observations.”

As they sweep through the rubble, Mihail Sichitiu says emergency personnel would get a map of the sound and data they collect.

“We envision somebody with a sort of a tablet that sees on a map representation where the roaches are and how they proceed,” he says. “And if they find anything, where that something is.”

Sichitiu and Bozkurt say that approach could work in other settings, too. They’re in discussions with a nuclear energy plant about having the roaches roam around to detect leakages. (They wouldn’t name the plant.)

Another idea is to actually control the roaches’ movement. Tahmid Latif is a grad student working on the project.

“We have lots of interesting experiments, which most of us would think it's only possible with robots,” he says. “But no, not any more, we have roaches doing the same things.”

The researchers can click a joystick back and forth to direct a cockroach along a 10-foot S-shape. Latif says the backpack in this case has a bluetooth radio and microcontroller (think: tiny computer) with electrodes connected to the roach's right and left antennae.

“The voltage pulse that we are applying is very small, in the millivolt range,” he says. “It just does the function of stimulating the roach's antenna, but it's not high enough to zap the roach or anything.”

In the lab, Bozkurt can steer them pretty consistently. But he says the real world would be much more challenging.

“It is definitely more insect than robot, and this is what we actually feel lucky about,” he says. “Because under the rubble in that dynamic, unknown environment, it is really difficult to build strategies to find your way – and cockroaches are the experts of this.”

All the tests have been in the lab so far. He says it’ll be another three to five years before they use the roaches in actual rubble. 

Bozkurt says it could lead to a situation where one day, when people see a cockroach, they’ll be relieved instead of repulsed.