Alper Bozkurt, an electrical and computer engineering professor at N.C. State University, loves cockroaches. Big, hissing cockroaches.
His research team has developed technology to automatically control the insects as they move around an environment. The work represents an important step toward developing remote-controlled animals that can investigate small and dangerous spaces, such as the rubble of a collapsed building.
Bozkurt’s cockroaches are not the kitchen invaders some of us know all too well. His hissing cockroaches from Madagascar have to be big enough, 2 to 3 inches, to wear miniature backpacks. Tiny wires are inserted into the antenna of the insects and, with electrical stimulation coming from the cockroach backpack, Bozkurt can guide the insect left or right along a desired path.
Using the popular Kinect controller for the Xbox video game system, Bozkurt can even set the controllable animals – he calls them “biobots” – on autopilot. The Kinect camera known for tracking the dance moves and soccer kicks of video gamers is effective at monitoring the movement of the cockroach.
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Bozkurt’s approach to harnessing animal power is just the next step in humankind’s domestication of animals, he said. And with the physical limitations and battery requirements of engineered robots, especially at small sizes, the appeal of controlling an animal’s body as a robot has been gaining traction.
Recently, Bozkurt was at a conference in Japan to share his findings and connect with other biobot builders. The field is growing with teams working to remotely control large moths and beetles, in addition to roaches.
A company in Michigan called Backyard Brains has developed cockroach control technology similar to Bozkurt’s that allows students to direct their own bugs using an iPhone.
Their RoboRoach kit, in the midst of a successful funding campaign on Kickstarter, serves as an educational tool to expose students of all ages to neuroscience, said Greg Gage, co-founder of Backyard Brains.
“I think people get kind of creeped out by remote control of insects for fun,” Gage said.
But the work of both Gage and Bozkurt is not just for fun.
Backyard Brains is serious about education. And Bozkurt’s research at NCSU is ultimately focused on developing technology that can be used to help humans.
His National Science Foundation funding is aimed at developing a system to search for survivors under the rubble of a collapsed building. Resilient cockroaches also could be used for environmental sensing, such as detecting radiation levels in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.
‘I love all kinds’
Bozkurt’s respect for insects is extreme. Even with a 3-year-old daughter at home, he spares black-widow spiders he finds in his shed, using a device to harmlessly vacuum them up for release elsewhere.
“I love all kinds of insects,” Bozkurt said.
He’s particularly fond of social insects, such as bees and ants, that survive in large groups.
Once Bozkurt refines his automatic cockroach control techniques, he wants to coordinate his biobots into swarms.
So, in the future, the first call after a disaster may be to Bozkurt’s team of remote-controlled cockroaches.