Cyborg Insects Designed for Search and Rescue
Shane Laros posted on November 19, 2016 |
Engineers take control of cockroach swarms to direct them in disaster relief operations.
(Image courtesy of NCSU.)
(Image courtesy of NCSU.)
The creepy crawlies targeted by traps, poisons and newspapers could be responsible for saving lives in the near future—much to the displeasure of those afflicted with entomophobia.

A study out of North Carolina State University (NCSU) has expanded on earlier research into controlling cockroaches using remote control implants - they’ve dubbed these cyborg creations biobots.

For an example of how to control the bugs, check out this video.

The NCSU researchers took this technique to a new level by using software developed to map the insects’ paths, while moving their containment range using a done equipped with a proximity beacon.

"The idea would be to release a swarm of sensor-equipped biobots—such as remotely controlled cockroaches—into a collapsed building or other dangerous, unmapped area," explained Edgar Lobaton, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NCSU and co-author of two papers describing the work.

With the UAV directing the swarm where it's needed, rescuers will gain complex maps of areas inaccessible to humans.

Lobaton further explained, "A strong radio signal from the UAV could penetrate to a certain extent into a collapsed building, keeping the biobot swarm contained. And as long as we can get a signal from any part of the swarm, we are able to retrieve data on what the rest of the swarm is doing. Based on our experimental data, we know you're going to lose track of a few individuals, but that shouldn't prevent you from collecting enough data for mapping."

The researchers’ software ties together all the maps that are recorded through the insects’ movements.

The technology has been tested using inch-and-a-half-long robots that simulate cockroach behavior, supported by the earlier research of Alper Bozkurt, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at NCSU, who had previously developed functional cockroach biobots.

The next step will be to combine the research, using actual insect biobots in the field.

"We had previously developed proof-of-concept software that allowed us to map small areas with biobots, but this work allows us to map much larger areas and to stitch those maps together into a comprehensive overview," Lobaton said.

"It would be of much more practical use for helping to locate survivors after a disaster, finding a safe way to reach survivors, or for helping responders determine how structurally safe a building may be.”

So if you’re ever in trouble and spot a friendly cockroach, hold off on squashing it—that bug might be what saves your life.

For more information, check out "A Framework for Mapping with Biobotic Insect Networks: From Local to Global Maps," published in Robotics and Autonomous Systems and "Geometric Learning and Topological Inference with Biobotic Networks," published in IEEE Transactions on Signal and Information Processing over Networks.

For more cyborg insect news, find out why engineers turn locusts into cyborg sensing machines.

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