Cyborg cockroaches could help find survivors in disaster zones

Cockroaches are known for being hardy creatures, and now they could be put to work as assistants in dangerous disaster zones.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have fitted cockroaches with electronic backpacks that could help them find survivors trapped in the rubble after an earthquake or building collapse.

These cyborg cockroaches, or biobots, will use microphones to pick up sounds, such as a person crying for help, and seek out the source so that emergency personnel know where to look. One type contains a single microphone that can capture relatively high-resolution sound from any direction to be wirelessly transmitted to first responders, while the second type is equipped with an array of three directional microphones to detect the direction of the sound.

Dr Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, said: “In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors. The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter – like people calling for help – from sounds that don’t matter – like a leaking pipe. Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero in on where those sounds are coming from.”

The researchers have also developed technology that will help them control the biobots’ movements, creating an ‘invisible fence’ to keep them in the disaster area. This will keep them within range of each other so that they can be used as a reliable mobile wireless network, and can also be used to steer them to light sources, so that the miniaturised solar panels on their backpacks can be recharged.

Here’s a video showing a laboratory test of the microphone array system at work:

And here you can see the invisible fence technology in practice:

To find out more about incredible new technologies and how they are changing the world, pick up the latest issue of How It Works magazine.