A cyborg cockroach may one day save your life.

(Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.)

University of Connecticut professor Abhishek Dutta created a robot-roach hybrid—a hardwired biological insect—based on the Madagascar hissing cockroach.

One of the largest species of cockroach, wingless hissers are often kept as pets (*shudders*). But it’s their reputation as excellent climbers (even able to scale smooth glass) that likely attracted Dutta to the arthropod.

“The use of insects as platforms for small robots has an incredible number of useful applications, from search-and-rescue to national defense,” he said in a statement.

A couple of real-life Dr. Frankensteins, Dutta and undergraduate student Evan Faulkner attached a microcircuit to the roach for more reliable and precise control. The tiny computer can detect six degrees of free motion, acceleration, and direction.

The researchers are also able to track ambient temperature around the creature; tests have shown the temperature of the roach’s environment can affect how and where it moves.

FYI: Roaches are more likely to go for walks when it’s warm, according to UConn.

A cockroach with an implanted neurocontroller (via the Dutta Lab)

The microcircuit is worn like a miniature backpack, its wires attaching to the insect’s antennae lobes. Tiny electrical impulses sent to the nerve tissue simulate an obstacle.

For instance, a small charge to the left antenna makes the critter move right. Researchers found, however, that actions decreased in intensity after initial stimulus. So if a roach makes a hard left after the first pulse, subsequent turns are less dramatic. Handy knowledge if you’re the one doing the steering.

A tiny Bluetooth transmitter and receiver allows nearby operation via a smartphone.

Cockroach robots aren’t new. But while other labs have developed similar control systems, UConn’s stands out for its greater degree of regulation, real-time feedback, and multi-channel avenues for stimulation.

“Our microcircuit provides a sophisticated system for acquiring real-time data on an insect’s heading and acceleration, which allows us to extrapolate its trajectory,” Dutta explained. “We believe this advanced closed-loop, model-based system provides better control for precision maneuvering, and overcomes some of the technical limitations currently plaguing today’s micro-robots.”

This research will be published in the journal Proceedings of the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience, Philadelphia, 2018.

No cockroaches were harmed during these experiments.

Most people don’t want to see a creepy crawly insect, let alone study them. But bugs are roboticists’ favorite muse. Find out more here.

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