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Future of search and rescue: Cockroaches piloted by Kinect

By fitting cockroaches with microphones and speakers, rescuers may be able to detect voices of people in trapped buildings.

The cockroach and its keeper.
Alper Bozkurt

File this one under the grossly, absurdly, and perhaps soon patently awesome. Researchers at North Carolina State University say they have developed a system by which cockroaches may actually perform search and rescue.

Using Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect, they plotted a path for cockroaches and tracked them. Researchers nudged the roaches into motion with wires attached to the bugs' sensory appendages, and they steered the roaches by sending small electrical impulses to wires attached to the bugs' antennae. The old-fashioned horse and whip are just so crude by comparison.

Still, why the cockroach? Presumably their size could prove useful in navigating piles of rubble, and fewer people may have ethical qualms with zapping a roach into submission than, say, a puppy.

In their experiments, the researchers sketched a path for the roaches, and had the Kinect system detect where they were relative to that path. The roaches wore the necessary circuitry on their exoskeletons, like miniature Atlases bearing their burdens on their backs.

By using the Kinect, researchers are able to guide the roaches in the dark, though they are going to have to come up with a workaround to be able to see through rubble and debris. They also hope to fit the roaches with tiny microphones and speakers so that rescuers can both detect the voices of people who are trapped and tell them that help -- in the form of something other than a roach -- is on the way.

"We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites," said co-author Alper Bozkurt in a school news release. "The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation."

Bozkurt and company plan to present their findings at the Remote Controlled Insect Biobots Minisymposium at the 35th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society on July 4 in Osaka, Japan.

So if you ever find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of requiring a search and rescue team, be kind to that herd of oncoming cockroaches. It just might mean reinforcements are on their way.