Drones and Cyborg Roaches Team Up to Map Disaster Zones

A new projects aims to pair biobots with drones in an effort that could save lives.

Imagine this scenario: An earthquake has just rattled your city and you've found yourself alive, but trapped in the rubble of a collapsed office building. Air and a sliver of light stream through a crack to the outside world. You call for help, but no one answers.

And then suddenly, there's movement. Dozens of cockroaches come swarming toward you through the crack. It's the stuff of nightmares. Except it's not. These are not your common, garbage-variety roaches; these are a team of sensor-laden cyborgs in communication with a drone and base station outside, and they're about to save your life.

"Maybe you're reaction is to scream, but maybe that would help because they will be able to find where you are," assistant professor Edgar Lobaton told Seeker.

He and his colleagues Alireza Dirafzoon and Alper Bozkurt at North Carolina State University reported this week on the latest development in a system to pair unmanned aerial vehicles with insect cyborgs in order to create 3-D maps of large, unfamiliar areas such as disaster zones - and even locate survivors.

The study, based on simulations using a swarm of 1.5-inch robotic "Hexbugs," which move around randomly like cockroaches, presents a framework for how such a system could work in the real world.

In a future scenario, hundreds of cockroaches would be fitted with tiny electronics designed to stimulate their antennae, which feel around for objects in front, and their cerci, appendages on their backsides used to detect changes in air movement that may indicate a predator. The NCSU researchers have already figured out that stimulating the antennae in a particular way can get the so-called biobot to move left or right, and stimulating the cerci can get it to accelerate.

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Cockroaches are natural explorers and the team wanted to capitalize on this talent. But they didn't want the roaches to go off in a thousand directions when the mission might be to map a particular area. That's where the drone comes in.

Flying overhead, the drone would send signals meant to stimulate the antennae or cerci in a way that would keep the cyborg roaches contained in a certain location or conversely, get them to hurry on to the next area.

Those signals wouldn't necessarily need to reach every single roach in the swarm, either. As long as they reached a few biobots, the software programs in the electronics would be programmed to communicate with other bio-bots as part of an ad-hoc network, sending the command through the ranks.

The map of the area would be created by using sensors on the robot to collect the spatial relationships between them and send it to the drone or a base station outside. An algorithm would piece together the data to create a 3-D map. When enough data had been collected from a particular area, the drone would herd the biobots into the next zone.

"Herding cockroaches. Sure, why not," Lobaton said.

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Other sensors on the biobot could be designed to detect for signs of survivors. If a person were encountered, the cyborg could send a signal through the ad-hoc network back to the drone or base station and a first responder could, well, respond.

The latest research puts some of these ideas to the test. In a controlled environment, Lobaton and his colleagues allowed Hexbugs to move around randomly in a maze. Overhead a camera, which acted like the drone, kept track of the biobots. As the robots moved about, software kept track of them and was able to paint a basic picture of the environment.

"Our next step is to start doing some experiments with the cockroaches themselves," Lobaton said.

They've been analyzing how different signals produce different movements in the biobots. Once they have a good idea, they'll start investigating how best to contain them. After that, they'll bring in the drone.

"We still have some work to do," Lobaton said.

So, the next time you see a roach, think twice about squashing it. It may have a higher calling.