28 September 2012

Cyborg Insects

Welcome back. Remember how excited you were reading my blog post on insect behavior and the illustrated verse on the praying mantis? Would you like to re-live that high? OK! I saw a report about another insect. I’ll start at the beginning.

When I was working at the Arecibo Observatory in the mid-1960s, one of the scientists and I considered living offsite. He heard about a vacant place, got hold of the key and we went to check it out. As we opened the front door and the air and sunlight rushed in, approximately 25,000 cockroaches scattered.

Make-believe giant cockroach
sitting on footstool. (My wife
won’t read this post if she
sees a photo of a cockroach.)
I bring this up, not to justify our bypassing that lively residence, but to highlight my long-term interest in controlling cockroaches. 
The ultimate control is now possible. Researchers at North Carolina State University have converted live cockroaches into remotely controlled cyborgs!

Remotely Controlled Cockroaches

Working with Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which grow to be 2 or 3 inches, much larger than a run of mill cockroach species, the researchers rigged up the bugs like toy cars with loaded roof racks. They attached a lightweight chip with a wireless transmitter and receiver, and wired a microcontroller to the bugs’ antennae and cerci.

Antennae I knew, but I had to dig deeper to learn about cerci. Those are the two little appendages that stick out near the rear ends. I’ve seen them on earwigs, but I never noticed them on cockroaches. Anyway, here’s where it gets cool.

Make-believe giant cockroach
hiding under footstool.
Hairs on the cerci are sensitive to air movement. The hairs are connected to nerve cells. The nerve cells analyze the air sensed by the cerci hair and signal the cockroach to run in the direction of the air flow. Opening the door to the vacant house or lifting your shoe to…you know...is all it takes to get the air and cockroach moving.

Instead of blowing on the cerci hairs, the researchers use electrical signals to the cerci to start the bugs running. Then they use electrical charges to the antennae to control the direction the bugs run. The experiments successfully demonstrated that the scampering cyborg cockroaches could be controlled remotely to follow a curved line on the floor. (Check out the video in the linked review.)

Powering Cyborg Cockroaches

The North Carolina State researchers are hoping to use cyborg cockroaches in emergency response; for example, finding earthquake survivors. Related research is addressing the power source to run the bug’s roof rack and sensors. You’ll love this.

Remember the absolutely fascinating work on impaling snails to generate electrical power? Of course you do. Well, Case Western Reserve University researchers are doing that with cockroaches.

The research team is developing a biofuel cell, powered by a sugar the cockroach produces from its food. In testing thus far, they implanted the tiny device--two electrodes with special enzymes--into the abdomens of five cockroaches. They measured the power the device produced and removed it without any apparent harm to the cockroaches. (Oh, thank goodness they weren’t harmed!)

Make-believe giant cockroach
hiding behind footstool.

Wrap Up

Who needs to build bug-like robots if we can take real bugs and make them cyborgs? Research on the cyborg bugs seems to be quite extensive. I may open the topic again in the future. For now, thanks for stopping by.


Link to review of North Carolina State University research:
Link to review of Case Western Reserve University research: http://www.livescience.com/17956-insect-cyborg-biofuel-cell.html
Abstract of Case Western Research University paper in Journal of the American Chemical Society:

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