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Want to control cyborg cockroaches? There's an app for that

June 12, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • Researchers have created an apparatus that will let users control a cockroach's movements with their smartphone.
Researchers have created an apparatus that will let users control a cockroach's… (Backyard Brains )

Cockroaches may strike fear into the hearts of humans, but now you can control their movements — one roach at a time — with a smartphone app.

A pair of University of Michigan alumni have built a device that can direct a live cockroach’s wanderings by sending turn signals directly to its nerves, according to their TEDGlobal talk presented in Edinburgh, Scotland, this week.

The device, known as RoboRoach, works by strapping a computer chip onto the roach’s shell like a backpack and attaching wires to the nerves in its antennae. Sending a signal to the antenna apparently tells the roach that there’s a wall in front of it, forcing the insect to turn either left or right, according to the researchers' Kickstarter video. The result is a system that can be controlled via Bluetooth from a smartphone simply by swiping a finger across your screen.

These aren’t the only researchers to fiddle with a cockroach backpack — researchers at North Carolina State University took jumbo-sized Madagascar hissing cockroaches, strapped on a backpack and were able to steer the roaches left or right using wires attached to their antennae. They were also able to make them walk forward by hooking up to the roaches’ cerci, sensory organs that detect air movement behind them so they can quickly skitter to safety. This particular set-up was controlled by radio commands sent from a joystick.

The RoboRoach researchers say the robotic roach can be a handy tool for students to learn about neuroscience (which they describe in a paper in PLoS ONE). But although the scientists say the procedure — which involves snipping off antennae to connect to the nerves — is essentially painless, animal-rights groups have voiced some concerns, according to the BBC.

Cockroaches, for their part, have done a decent job of defending themselves against humans; they have even evolved to taste certain sugars as bitter to avoid getting poisoned by roach bait.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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