Scientists have been trying for years to design miniature robots to fit into small spaces that human eyes and hands are unable to reach.
Shrinking technology is complicated and expensive, but a researcher at North Carolina State University may have a solution.
If there is an earthquake or a nuclear meltdown, the first responders sent inside damaged structures to check for survivors could be robotic cockroaches.
"They're easy to find, they are cheap, you can find them in pet stores," says Dr. Alper Bozkurt who is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University.
But not any bug is fit to be a 'biobot.'
Roaches can survive almost anything, but unlike the kind crawling in your kitchen, the Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) is slow enough to be steered and big enough to carry a payload.
"Their electronic backpacks weigh just a few grams, but can transmit a vast amount of digital data," Bozkurt says.
Some of the digital data these insects can transmit include sound, gas concentration, light information and even a miniature camera.
The idea is to use an army of roach biobots whose backpacks are all connected to a central computer collecting data as they roam around areas that we can't reach.
This could be useful in trying to locate survivors at the scene of a natural or man-made disaster.
"We live in the information era and we can fit a lot of information into millimeter scale," Bozkurt states.
Scientists can also fit electrodes into the insects' antennas, allowing remote-controlled navigation to make the cockroach walk to the left, right or make a U-turn.
"You're basically in a dynamic and uncertain environment and your robot can get trapped, but with insects they can easily find their way out," Bozkurt says.
Even if they don't, there are plenty more roaches and the digital backpacks cost only a few dollars.
They are far less expensive than losing a human life during a rescue.
Cockroaches are very complex, well-constructed creatures.
"When somebody kills an insect, I feel like someone is smashing a smart phone with their hammer," Bozkurt says.
While researchers still need to fine-tune this technology, these bugs may soon be put to work changing what we call 'pests' into life-saving pioneers.
The remote control doesn't completely move the roaches.
Actually, researchers will rely most on their random walking, with only small left and right turns.
They're also trying this out on moths whose flight can give scientists 3D data.
The following information is from an article published by North Carolina State University entitled "Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots" (http://ibionics.ece.ncsu.edu/assets/EMBC_12.pdf).
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