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Mini robot mimics cockroaches

Social robots that interact with cockroaches may help rid homes of common pests in the future.

Insect "extermination" may soon involve mini robots that can befriend and lure cockroaches from their dens.

Scientists in Lausanne, Switzerland, have successfully infiltrated a colony of roaches with a micro robot that has enough intricacies to interact with the world's most resilient insect, according to a report published in the June issue of IEEE Robotics & Automation.

Called InsBot, for "insect-like robot," the mechanical bug mimics the insects' smell and movements to the point that the roaches have accepted it as their own. That feat helps scientists study mixed societies of animals and robots.

Gilles Caprari, one of the scientists who authored the report, wrote that it's a first step to understanding the complexities of social animals like cockroaches that operate from a "collective intelligence," rather than being run by a leader. It "may potentially lead to...controlling such mixed societies."

Credit: Leurre Project
InsBot makes new friends.

That's part of what the scientists have been successful at showing with InsBot. In their latest experiment, the miniature robot drew the group of insects from a darkly lighted den to a more lit location, despite the roaches' affinity for low lighting. The roaches followed InsBot for the companionship.

The experiment is part of a European project called Leurre, which is focused on the study of the intersection between biology and robotics. Scientists believe that if they can use robots to mimic and respond to animals then they could eventually control the animals' behavior. For example, they could use robots to stop sheep from jumping off cliffs or to migrate cockroaches out of infested homes. Progress in the field could ultimately influence and aid in scientific fields like medicine, agriculture and ethology (which is the study of animal behavior).

A previous iteration of InsBot, called Alice, proved too clunky in the past, and the scientists say that InsBot is still a work in progress, according to the report. InsBot is green and about the size of a matchbox. It's equipped with six 2D color cameras, two tactile antennae, a vibration sensor and a light sensor to detect when a cockroach is present--a difficult task because cockroaches are brown and tend to live in dark environments.

For the experiment, the researchers had to imitate the chemical signal of cockroaches, in InsBot, so the insects would respond as if it were real. They used a synthesized odor, or cuticle pheromone of the cockroach, on a paper surrounding InsBot.