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Remote-control tech turns cockroaches into beasts of burden

Scientists have outfitted a cockroach with a high-tech backpack that allows them to remotely control where it scurries.

While the concept may sound terrifying, anyone buried alive under rubble in an earthquake will shout for joy at the sight of one of these bugs. The shout will be relayed to rescue teams.

Search and rescue robots are already in use. Many were showcased during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan

But building practical, insect-sized robots able to squeeze through tightly packed rubble has proven difficult because of the large batteries needed to power them.

“Insects have a power process on them, a natural one,” Alper Bozkurt, an electrical engineer at North Carolina State University, explained to me Friday. “We just needed to supply power for communication, which is not much.”

The research builds on studies that have attached radio tags and sensors to insects to learn how their muscles work. Bozkurt and colleagues took this a step further and stimulated their muscles. 

Their remote control system consists of two parts: antennae stimulators and another on their rear end.

Cockroaches use their antennae to feel their way around the environment. “What we do is we insert tiny electrodes to the antennae and we send low-power pulses [to them],” Bozkurt said.

The pulse simulates the antenna feeling an obstacle, such as a wall, causing the cockroach to turn the other direction. Buzz the left antenna, the cockroach turns right; buzz the right one, the bug turns left.

Spurring the cockroaches to scurry forward comes via a sensor on their rear end called cerci “which senses if there is a predator trying to reach from behind. When they feel something, they just go in the forward direction to run away from the predator,” Bozkurt explained.

“So, we use that to make the insect go forward and antenna electrodes to make it go left and right.”

In case all this shocking of cockroaches makes you feel sorry for the insects, Bozkurt said not to worry. 

“Insects do not have the concept of pain … they have sensors that direct their reflexes, but they don’t have pain sensors,” he said.

So far, the team has successfully demonstrated the technology works. The video below shows a cockroach being steered along a curvy line in a hallway.

Going forward, the team aims to create more real-life scenarios and work on communicating with the cockroaches under, for example, piles of rubble.

“Right now we have direct line-of-sight communication,” Bozkurt said. “But when you are trying to save people, there will be a lot of material between our transmitter and the antenna on the insect.”

The electrical engineer likened his research to the domestication of horses, oxen and other so-called beasts of burden that were a boon to the development of ancient civilizations.

Until now “we never thought of using insects for their muscle power,” he said.

What’s different today is we have the tools and biological know-how to control the cockroaches as well as a use for a beast of burden that can only carry a payload of a couple of grams.

“We are now living in the information era,” Bozkurt said. “So the most important payload is the information itself and we can … gather megabits of information on the insect’s backpack.”

Bozkurt and graduate Tahmid Latif presented a paper on the technology in August at the annual conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.