Insects can go where rescuers can’t (Image: Reuters/Osman Orsal)
WE THINK of cockroaches as icky pests, but they could be lifesavers, too. Cybernetically enhanced insects controlled by a drone can be deployed to comb the rubble of an earthquake site, looking for survivors.
Alper Bozkurt and colleagues at North Carolina State University in Raleigh havewith tiny electrodes implanted to serve as a kind of electronic bridle. “This stimulates the antennae which they use to understand their physical environment,” he says. Given an “obstacle on the right” signal, the insects go left, for example.
The cockroaches are good at scrabbling through tricky terrain, making them ideal search-and-rescue scouts. But they need to be coordinated, and that’s where the drone comes in. “It’s like a leader that can guide the swarm to explore a large environment,” says Edgar Lobaton, who works with Bozkurt. The drone does not guide the insects individually. Instead it beams an invisible radio “fence” for them to search within.
The insects are also fitted with sensor backpacks. These sense the radio fence, but their most important function is to network the roaches together, allowing the data they gather to be relayed to the insect nearest the drone for uploading.
The backpacks monitor the strength of signals from their nearest neighbours, ensuring that the cockroaches never lose contact with each other. The units also gauge separation from other insects by exchanging ultrasound pings, listening to see how long it takes the nearest roach-pack to return the signal.
Some of the cockroaches are listening out too, using low- resolution directional microphones to home in on any sounds from their surroundings. When one heads towards the source of a sound, its backpack summons the neighbours to follow. Just a few insects carry a higher-resolution microphone and, once a swarm is gathered, these insects pinpoint the source and beam up its location.
Other sensors can be added, depending on what type of disaster scene the insects are exploring. “Infrared sensors can help for finding warm bodies,” says Bozkurt. “Propane sensors to find out whether there’s gas leaks. Geiger counters for radioactivity.”
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