Oct. 16, 2013 at 3:10 PM ET
Hundreds of cyborg insects carrying radio transmitters like backpacks may one day scurry in to help emergency responders survey damaged or contaminated buildings after an earthquake, chemical spill or nuclear reactor accident.
The cyborg bugs could give responders "a quick picture of the environment," under conditions that may be dangerous or inaccessible to human rescuers, said Edgar Lobaton, assistant professor of electrical engineering at North Carolina State University.
Roboticists have been making inroads into swarm technology in the last few decades, but groups of insects have been working together for millions of years. Roaches are natural explorers, and one species, the Madagascar hissing cockroach, is big enough to carry a decent-sized electronics lab on its back, Lobaton told NBC News. Compared to their fully robotic counterparts, insects are also naturally energy-efficient.
"They have their own behavior, their own programming from nature," Lobaton said. He means that when you set bugs free, they tend to run around all over the place. "We’re exploiting that random movement to work in our favor," he said in a news release.
The team used software to model the natural movements of the insects, and demonstrated how a swarm might help put together a topographical map of a disaster area, a "quick sketch" that humans could consult before going in themselves.
But insect control may be an option, too: Lobaton's colleagues at NCSU showed last year how they could control the movements of the roaches by stimulating their muscles and antennae. Researchers have also shown that they can implant a device inside the abdomen of a hawkmoth that, when synced with its nervous system, can stimulate flight.
Lobaton's proposed cockroach "backpacks" would also include tiny chemical sensors, to detect carbon dioxide or other dangerous chemicals in the air; and audio sensors, to pick up sound and transmit signals from humans who are trapped.
Lobaton and his colleagues will present their work for the first time at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in November this year. The plan is to test it on robotic insects first, then test it on cyborg Madagascar cockroaches, and perhaps even moths. Can't wait? You can build you own.