Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Can Remote-Controlled Cockroaches Enhance Search and Rescue?

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches, with the goal of developing ways that the insects can map disaster sites.

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches, with the goal of developing ways that the insects can map different environments like collapsed buildings.

According to a press release from the university, the researchers are working to remotely control the insects through the use of a computer that will steer them through an environment. To do this, the researchers incorporated Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect system into an electronic interface and are testing how the cockroaches respond to the remote control. “The researchers plug in a digitally plotted path for the roach, and use Kinect to identify and track the insect’s progress,” according to the university.

“We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites,” Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State and co-author of a paper on the work, said in the press release. “The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation.”

The insects could be outfitted with microphones and other sensors to help detect survivors in a collapsed building or other type of infrastructure. Bozkurt said they might also be able to attach small speakers to the cockroaches, allowing rescuers to communicate with survivors.


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Photo courtesy of Alper Bozkurt


While the technology to remotely steer the insects isn’t new, adding the Kinect to the system allowed the researchers to develop the autopilot program.

The interface that controls the insect is wired to the cockroach’s antennae and cerci, according to the university. “The cerci are sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen, which are normally used to detect movement in the air that could indicate a predator is approaching, causing the roach to scurry away. But the researchers use the wires attached to the cerci to spur the roach into motion. The wires attached to the antennae send small charges that trick the roach into thinking the antennae are in contact with a barrier and steering them in the opposite direction.”

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