21 April 2019
"Robo-roaches" can prove useful in search and rescue operations. Photo: RT
"Robo-roaches" can prove useful in search and rescue operations. Photo: RT

Texas scientists show cockroaches can be useful

For most of us, cockroaches are pests that cause foul smell and spread diseases. They must be swatted and eliminated from our homes and offices.

But they can also be useful to humans.

We’ve heard of rescuers using remotely-controlled miniature robots that get into tiny spaces to see if there are earthquake survivors or police using them to determine where the bad guys and the hostages are.

But what if instead of robots, cockroaches are used? 

A team of engineers at Texas A&M University is exploring this possibility through a system that can remotely control cockroaches via a miniature computer that is wired to the nervous system, news website RT reports.

The researchers have developed a “backpack” that weighs no more than 3 grams which can hold all the necessary equipment, including a computer chip, to control the insects. A tiny video camera and microphone can also be attached.

How it works is pretty simple. A report published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface explains it thus: Cockroaches have six legs, three on each side. When they walk, the three legs on each side move in sync with one another.

When a pulse is sent to the middle left leg, for example, it falls out of sync with the others, prompting the insect to turn left. That way, the movement and direction of the insect can be controlled.

So far, the roaches are responding to the commands about 70 percent of the time, and the researchers believe the technology can be perfected in time.

Hong Liang, who is leading the team, believes the research will have practical uses. 

“Insects can do things a robot cannot. They can go into small places, sense the environment, and if there’s movement, from a predator say, they can escape much better than a system designed by a human,” Liang told the Guardian newspaper. “We wanted to find ways to work with them.”

He noted that cockroaches are capable of carrying five times their own body weight, although they get tired, of course.

As such, the backpack ought to be made lighter in order for the insects to carry out their assigned mission, he said.

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