WHY GO TO all the trouble of designing and building a drone when nature has already done most of the work for you? That’s the stance of the small but determined group of researchers trying to robotize insects. Some are working on turning flying creatures like beetles into such cyborgs – perhaps for use in military reconnaissance or espionage. Others prefer to focus on the spooky side of entomology by taking electronic control of cockroaches.
The first cyber-cockroach dates back to 1997, when Shimoyama Isao of the University of Tokyo sent electrical signals to a roach’s antennae, causing it to turn either left or right, depending on which antenna was stimulated. Others have built on this approach by recruiting additional sensory organs such as the backward-facing cerci. They’ve also started outfitting the insects with instrument packs that could enable them to do a useful job: searching collapsed buildings for survivors.
One of them is Sato Hirotaka from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He’s been working on cyber insects (including flying versions in the form of giant flower bugs) for 15 years. Now he’s added another twist to the cyber roaches. Rather than having their movements dictated by remote control, his are autonomous agents. They are powered by algorithms that respond directly to sensors in their backpacks.
The one from Dr. Insects equipped in this way are Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which are about 6 cm long. The backpacks contain a communication chip, a carbon dioxide sensor, a motion sensor, an infrared camera and a tiny battery.
For search and rescue operations in collapsed buildings, fleets of these roaches would be released into the rubble to forge their way through the rubble, looking for signs of life such as movement, body heat and elevated CO2 levels from breathing. The artificial intelligence that decides whether a series of signals actually indicate the presence of a human is programmed directly into the camera. When it thinks it’s spotted someone, it alerts a rescuer.
To test this arrangement, Drs. Sato and his team conduct experiments in a simulated disaster area. They laid out concrete blocks of various shapes and sizes over an area of 25 square meters. Among them were a number of people and also some decoys such as a heat lamp, a microwave and a laptop. They then released the cyber-cockroaches after first programming them the start and end points of the search. The software proved to be able to correctly recognize people 87% of the time, a success rate that Dr. Sato could be further improved by collecting multiple images from different angles.
In the next phase of the project, the system is to be further developed for outdoor use. After that, the manufacture of the backpacks and the automation of their attachment to the insects must be commercialized. If all goes well, Dr. Sato anticipates that the result could be available for use within five years.
To enjoy more of our mind-expanding science coverage, subscribe to Simply Science, our weekly newsletter.
This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the heading “Roaches to the Rescue”