Remotely Controlled Real Cockroaches
Researchers have used a video game technology to remotely control real cockroaches, which could help during rescue operations at disaster sites. NC State University

Researchers at North Carolina State University have used technology found in video games to remotely control the movements of real cockroaches, so they can help rescue operations at disaster sites.

The scientists have developed an electronic interface and incorporated Kinect, a motion-sensing input device built by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 video game console and Windows PCs, to remotely control living cockroaches and steer them with a computer through a controlled environment.

“Our goal is to be able to guide these roaches as efficiently as possible, and our work with Kinect is helping us do that,” said Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, in a statement.

According to the researchers, the technology is being used to test how cockroaches react to the remote control. They hope that cockroaches controlled by such a device can be helpful in mapping dynamic environments, such as collapsed buildings, to search for survivors.

The researchers place the cockroaches in a digitally plotted path, and use Kinect to identify and track their progress. The tracking data, collected from Kinect, is then used to automatically guide the insects along the desired path.

The researchers have connected the interface with the cockroach’s antennae and cerci, the sensory organs on the insect’s abdomen, using wires to spur it into motion. The wires attached to the antennae send small charges that trick the cockroach into thinking the antennae are in contact with a barrier and steering them in the opposite direction.

The Kinect then provides data on the cockroach’s response to the electrical impulses from the remote-control interface, to help the researchers improve steering and control the insect’s movements more accurately.

“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… The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation,” Bozkurt, a co-author on the paper titled, “Kinect-based System for Automated Control of Terrestrial Insect Biobots," said in the statement.

The cockroaches will also be equipped with other sensors, the scientists say, such as microphones, to locate survivors in collapsed buildings or other disaster areas. Researchers are also mulling over attaching small speakers to the cockroaches, which could help rescuers communicate with anyone trapped.

Here’s a video, released by the researchers that shows the entire system in action.