Cyborg Cockroaches Now More Reliable Than Ever

Sixty percent of the time they turn the right way every time

Discoid cockroach with attached electronic backpack

Discoid cockroach with attached electronic backpack

Carlos J. Sanchez et al

Designing an inch-long robot is tricky: there are lots of small moving parts, and it’s hard to get a tiny enough battery that can still power the entire system. Instead of designing a whole new robot body, scientists at Texas A&M University instead hijacked an existing, efficient form: cockroaches. Using an implant that plugs into the roach's nervous system, they were able to steer the cockroach in the correct direction 60 percent of the time.

The bug-sized backpack contains a battery for power and delivers electrical pulses precisely to a nerve cluster responsible for moving the roach's front legs. When triggered, the front leg on one side falls out of step with the other legs, so the roach pivots in that direction.

This isn't the first time scientists have been able to steer a cockroach via remote control. In fact, you can even do it yourself. But those methods steer the roach via its antennae, which is less reliable than co-opting the legs. Using the antenna method, the bug turns the correct way about 50 percent of the time.

Future real-world applications for cyborg roaches (such as search-and-rescue workers; no, really) would need the critters to crawl where humans couldn't watch from overhead. Toward that end, the research team wants to outfit the control backpacks with sensors like GPS, compass, and accelerometer.

Still, if I'm ever stuck in a collapsed building, I'll hope that roach-mimicking robots are more advanced than the cyborg bugs themselves.