By attaching a tiny electronic 'backpack' (weighing just 0.7g) to a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, researchers at North Carolina State University have been able to control the movement of the insect to clearly follow a pre-defined path.
As can be seen in the image, the implementation is quite crude but clearly shows the possibility of movement in confined spaces.
A video of the cockroach being steered along the path may be seen here.
The controller is wired to the cockroach's antennae and cerci.
The cerci are sensory organs to the rear of the animal, capable of detecting movement in the air suggestive of a predator approaching from behind. By stimulating this area, the cockroach is encouraged to run forwards.
"Our aim was to determine whether we could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces," says Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. "Ultimately, we think this will allow us to create a mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information, such as finding survivors in a building that's been destroyed by an earthquake.
"Building small-scale robots that can perform in such uncertain, dynamic conditions is enormously difficult," Bozkurt says. "We decided to use biobotic cockroaches in place of robots, as designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at performing in such a hostile environment."
The backpack includes a wireless receiver/transmitter which permits the remote control of the cockroach. It also includes the microcontroller that manages the stimulus being given to the cockroach.
As component miniaturisation continues, this configuration could be used in the future to permit the cockroach to carry a small video camera, enabling searchers to investigate collapsed structures following earthquakes and similar events.
This research was presented at the 34th Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, San Diego.