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Mention the word 'cockroach' in a room full of people and you will see it empty it out in no time at all. However, if some scientists are right, this very same pest that we have all come to despise and fear, may soon prove to be our savior in the aftermath of natural disasters.
North Carolina State University's Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, Alper Bozkurt and his team were looking for a way to help rescue people trapped inside the rubble of collapsed buildings during natural disasters like earthquakes. However, instead of creating a completely electronic robot they decided to build a biological robot (biobot) using off-the-shelf electronics and an insect that is known to survive in almost any kind of environment, can squeeze through the tiniest of crevices and, has the ability to think for itself- The cockroach.
For their experiment, the results of which were revealed at the IEEE Engineering In Medicine and Biology Society in San Diego, California on August 28th, 2012, they selected ten Madagascar Hissing cockroaches. Measuring between 5 to 7 inches long, they are one of the larger species of the insect and also, have a relatively long lifespan of 2 years.
In order to turn them into partial robots they first had to perform a simple surgery on the insects. They began by anesthetizing them, which in the insects case meant placing them in a fridge for a few hours. The cold makes them hibernate and therefore, immobile. Then with the help of some medical-grade epoxy glue they stuck tiny magnets to their backs onto which they strapped on a 'backpack' that contained a wireless receiver and transmitter. This helps them track the insect's location, which will become crucial when the cockroach is sent to seek out distressed humans. While this may all seem like a ton of load on the tiny insect, the team says the electronics weigh a mere 0.7 grams (0.024 ounces).
In addition to that, the engineers also used some tweezers to insert electrodes into the roaches' antenna and cerci. This helps them guide the cockroaches to the right area - That's because the cerci, which are sensory organs on the roach's abdomen are used by the insect to detect movement in the air, which tells them when a predator is approaching. By attaching the electrodes to the sensors, the engineers are able to stimulate the motion and fool the roach into thinking that there is a predator around and coax it to move forward. To ensure that the insects are not being hurt in any way by all these foreign attachments, they also affixed a microcontroller that monitors their situation 24/7.
In the laboratory tests done with the biobots, they seemed to work perfectly. While these are still early days and a lot more work has to be done, Mr. Bozkurt believes it will not be long before cockroaches turn from awful pests to man's best friend.
Around since the time of dinosaurs, cockroaches are one of the oldest known insects to mankind and believe it or not, one of most amazing ones too. While they have a bad reputation of being household pests, only 1% of the 4,500 known species of the insect, actually are. They are hardy little things and have managed to survive through generations by simply adapting to all kinds of environments and diets. They will eat anything organic ranging from starches to cheese to beer and even flakes of dried skin or decaying organic matter. When times are really tough they even eat wood (termites) or even worse, each other or, not eat anything at all, for a whole month!
Not impressed? How about this - They can live with up to one week even after their heads have been cut off and hold their breath for a whopping 40 minutes at a time. Not only that, they are also amazingly speedy and can scuttle up to 3 miles an hour and, have maneuvers so rapid, that they can disappear before you can say the word 'cockroach'. And lastly, the reason they were picked to be biobots - they can squeeze through any space, even the tiniest ones. So the next time you happen to see one of these, do give it a quick salute before . . . . Dashing out of the door!
Resources: nationalgeo.com,robaid.com, pestoworldforkids.com,livescience.com