Biorobotics Takes a Giant Stride with Cyborg Cockroaches
Richard Adefioye posted on September 14, 2018 |
Wearable microcircuit acts as a neuro-controller for steering insect movement.
A cockroach with an implanted neuro-controller. (Image courtesy of the University of Connecticut.)
A cockroach with an implanted neuro-controller. (Image courtesy of the University of Connecticut.)

For years now, researchers have been trying to devise a way to electronically control biological systems—with a major focus on insects—and for a good reason. The tiny nature of insects allows them to penetrate tiny spaces that are otherwise inaccessible, making its potential application in search and rescue, surveillance, and national defense a viable one. And with the new set of cyborg cockroaches developed in a recent research study, this concept may soon become a reality.

Researchers produced the cyborg cockroaches by attaching a miniature neuro-controller microcircuit—much like an electronic backpack—to Madagascar hissing cockroaches. With the electrodes of the microcircuit attached to the insect’s antenna lobes, it was possible to remotely send slight electrical charges directly to the neural tissue.

Thus, by electrically stimulating the cockroach’s left or right antenna, researchers were able to trick the cockroach into thinking it had encountered an obstacle, causing it to move in the opposite direction. In other words, when a charge is sent to the insect’s left antenna, the cockroach responds by moving right, and when the right antenna is electrically stimulated, the cockroach moves left—an interesting redefinition of power steering.   

While this sort of control system isn’t the first of its kind, this particular one does stand out because of the extensive degree to which the insect’s antenna can be stimulated as a result of its four-channel micro-circuitry. Furthermore, the system provides detailed real-time feedback about the insect’s neuro-muscular activity, and this makes it far easier to monitor and direct movement effectively.

The 9-axis inertial measurement unit within the device makes it possible to track the insect’s rotational and linear accelerations and identify its compass heading. An additional sensor measures the ambient temperature. Most importantly, all data gathered by the microcircuit can be easily collected with any Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. The operator can then utilize these data to map out the insect’s trajectory and steer it accordingly.

The potential applications of this study are significant and have the potential to help save many lives, especially during search and rescue operations in collapsed buildings. The study was conducted by Abhishek Dutta, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Connecticut, and undergraduate student Evan Faulkner. The full details of their findings are set to be published in the Proceedings of the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience.  

For more exciting robotics research, check out DARPA Developing Micro-robotics for High-Risk Environments.

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