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January 14, 2013
Volume 2, Issue 9

The Biobot Cockroach

Can you imagine being able to have a remote controlled live insect?! Well, maybe not, unless it was to slow it down to step on it or to get rid of it in another way.

By studying the interface between artificial and biological systems, a field called bionics, some researchers have been able to create artificially-enhanced insects. For example the Integrated Bionic MicroSystems Laboratory at North Carolina State University, led by Dr. Alper Bozkurt, has attached sensors and a wireless control system to Madagascar hissing cockroaches, allowing them to control the movement and direction of these insects.

The team developed the "biobot" cockroach by embedding a low-cost, lightweight, commercially-available chip with a wireless receiver and transmitter onto the insect. The chip only weighs 0.7 grams and has a microcontroller that monitors the interface between the electrodes and tissue to avoid neural damage. The researchers had to determine how to best connect and computationally control the interface between the electrodes and the neuromuscular system, so as not to overload the neural system while allowing fine control.

The microcontroller is wired to two of the Madagascar hissing cockroach’s sensory organs – the cerci and the antennae. The cerci are on the roach’s abdomen and are used to detect the air movement of potential predators. When movement is sensed, the roach will dart away. The antennae, located on the cockroach’s head are multifunctional sensors, and when elicited as tactile sensors in particular, are used to detect obstacles. If the right antenna touches an obstacle, the roach will turn left, and vice versa.


A cockroach biobot with an electronic backpack. Photo courtesy of Alper Bozkurt, NCSU.

By attaching the electrodes to these sensory organs, the researchers were able to wirelessly send signals to them to cause the roach to move forward and turn left and right - precisely steering the cockroach along a desired path.

There are many implications and applications for such technology. From search and rescue of victims trapped in collapsed buildings after an earthquake, finding dangerous gas leaks deep within buildings or underground, and on to providing scientists with novel information about neural interactions that could lead to advances in human prosthetics.

Alper Bozkurt

Image of Professor Alper Bozkurt.

Who Thinks of this Stuff?! Dr. Alper Bozkurt leads the Integrated Bionic MicroSystems Laboratory at North Carolina State University, where he also serves as Assistant Professor. His lab currently includes over 6 Ph.D. candidates and several undergraduates assisting in the research. Dr. Bozkurt received his M.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Drexel University in 2004 and his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University in 2010. He completed his undergraduate work in Electrical and Electronics Engineering in Istanbul, Turkey.


Read more about Dr. Bozkurt’s research controlling the movement of a Madagascar hissing cockroach at: http://ibionics.ece.ncsu.edu/assets/EMBC_12.pdf

Learn more about the Integrated Bionic MicroSystems Laboratory at: http://www.insectcyborgs.com

See a Twitter controlled roach cyborg in action at: http://animalnewyork.com/2012/heres-a-twitter-controlled-roach-cyborg/



Classroom Discussion:

As Dr. Bozkurt says, "Building small-scale (miniaturized) robots that can perform in such uncertain, dynamic conditions is enormously difficult." Living organisms such as cockroaches are already at-scale, complex, and work well in hostile environments.

Ask your students:

  • What limitations exist for designing and building miniaturized robotics?

The following references may be helpful in facilitating your discussion: