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Cyborg roaches can save your life -- or be your wireless carrier

Researchers have created creepy "biobots" wired up to microphones that seek out the source of sounds to help find and rescue disaster survivors.

Roaches to the rescue! Eric Whitmire/North Carolina State University

You might have heard the old joke that when the apocalypse wipes out our cities, the cockroaches will easily survive and take over. Strangely, the future reality may be that cockroaches will one day help save humans in a disaster.

Rather than fear the resilience of this clear bad boy of bugs, researchers at North Carolina State University sought to harness the hardiness of roaches by giving them the cyborg treatment. The scientists developed technology to create what they call a "biobot" by attaching a microphone to individual roaches that allows them to be used by first responders to seek out the source of sounds, like, say, a person trapped under rubble following an earthquake.

Each roach is fitted with a tiny circuit board backpack that is also wired into its nervous system, allowing the bug's motion to be controlled remotely. Sounds from an attached microphone are also sent back to the cockroach command center.

One version of the system even includes an array of three directional microphones that can detect the direction a sound is coming from. The team has also developed software that analyzes this information and automatically steers the biobot toward the source of a sound.

"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," says Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor at NC State and senior author of two papers on the work, in a release.

Bozkurt has also worked on similar research involving controlling cyborg moths.

Creating robotic listening cockroaches wasn't enough of a creepy/awesome accomplishment for Bozkurt's team, though. They also have demonstrated technology that creates an invisible fence to make sure the biobots stay in a defined area. This is obviously useful for keeping the bugs on their work site, but it also helps keep them in close enough range to create a reliable mobile wireless network. Plus, it can steer them to light sources to charge their electronic backpacks using the tiny solar cell on the package.

So, don't go toward the light if you want to be free, little roaches. Then again, what else are they going to do besides surprise you in your lunch? Head for the sunlight, you big bug, you -- I need to be sure I can make a call when it all goes down.

You can watch a short demonstration of a biobot roach responding to the invisible fence technology below.