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Science: 

Meet Robo-Roach: The living cockroach controlled by scientists

Don't step on him - he's one of us! Image: Texas A&M University

Don’t step on him – he’s one of us! Image: Texas A&M University

For all our advances in science, millions of years of evolution has just made some living, breathing lifeforms better than robots. That’s why, in a disturbing fusion of cyborg and creepy-crawly, scientists at Texas A&M University have created a Robo-Roach: a living, scuttling, breathing cockroach that scientists can make do their bidding.

“Insects can do things a robot cannot. They can go into small places, sense the environment, and if there’s movement, from a predator say, they can escape much better than a system designed by a human,” said Hong Liang, leader of the research, in an interview with The Guardian.

“We wanted to find ways to work with them,” she added, although if you strapped electrodes to our heads to make us do your dirty work, we think we’d quibble with the terminology there.

You probably have many questions: what, how, for the love of God, why? Let’s start with the last one.

Our new allies can get into places robots and humans can’t – and armed with a camera on their backs, could report back from the locations we’d rather not head to: collapsed buildings, sewer systems or even behind the fridge at Go Explore Towers. Actually, there’s some things we’d rather not know.

Here’s how it works, but we should warn you that you’re liable to feel some sympathy for the cockroaches at this point. Scientists fused tiny backpacks (awww!) to the backs of the cockroaches (ugh!) using paint, as regular glue wouldn’t stick to their waxy backs (ewww!). The backpacks contain a computer chip which sends signals down the wire into the nerves that control the cockroach’s leg movements. With the rechargeable backpack (good luck getting him to sit still next to the plug socket), the whole thing weighs in at 3 grams.

The scientists control the legs of the Robo-Roach by disrupting the middle leg on the opposite side that they want the creature to turn towards. Cockroaches usually move the three legs on each side in time, but by making the middle leg fall out of step, the critter would move in the desired direction 60 percent of the time. With tiny leashes (no really), this rate improved to a 70 percent success rate.

There is a slight concern that the cockroaches will get wise to the ruse eventually. In 1997, Japanese scientist Isao Shimoyama managed to steer roaches by stimulating their antennae, making them think they’d bumped into obstacles, but eventually they learned to ignore the virtual bumps, which we imagine caused a lot of head trauma in the long run.

Assuming they don’t adapt, there’s plenty more that could be added to the backpack. Cockroaches can carry five times their body weight, which is handy as no doubt feature-creep could make their backpacks more enhanced in future. However the scientists noticed that more weight would tire them out quickly: “We put them on a treadmill for a minute and then let them rest. If the backpack is lighter, they can go on for longer.”

Tiny backpacks? Cockroach leashes? Treadmills? We’d love a tour of their lab sometime. You can read more in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

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