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Summary:

Half robot, half insect, the cyborgs are controlled by a tiny electronics pack that directs them to find and map walls. Ethical questions could arise.

When first responders arrive at an emergency situation such as a collapsed building, they enter blind, uncertain of what they will encounter or how to reach their targets.

North Carolina State University researchers think cyborgs are the answer. A paper they will present next month proposes using live insects like cockroaches to map the insides of difficult-to-reach locations. The insects would each be connected to a tiny electronics pack that allows people to control their movements, organizing them into a swarm that can map the location of walls more precisely than if the insects spread out randomly.

Cyborg cockroach

“We focused on how to map areas where you have little or no precise information on where each biobot is, such as a collapsed building where you can’t use GPS technology,” senior paper author Edgar Lobaton said in a release. “One characteristic of biobots is that their movement can be somewhat random. We’re exploiting that random movement to work in our favor.”

Case 1 and 2 show natural swarm movement, where insects spread out evenly over time. Case 3 and 4 show the more precise wall mapping that electronic control allows. Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University.

Case 1 and 2 show natural swarm movement, where insects spread out evenly over time. Case 3 and 4 show the more precise wall mapping that electronic control allows. Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University.

The insects are first allowed to spread out randomly. Then their controller sends a signal to move until they hit a continuous surface like a wall, which they are then directed to follow. Commands are relayed via electrodes connected to the insects’ antennae. Location information taken in through sensors would be beamed back via radio signals. Software translates the signals into a map of the interior. Insects could be equipped with sensors to take in other types of data too, including the presence of chemical or radioactive threats.

Cyborg cockroaches recently raised ethical questions after an educational company revealed a kit that would allow even young students to create their own mind-controlled cockroaches. While a co-founder said the roaches feel little pain from the surgical procedure necessary to attach the electronics pack, the first publicly available, do-it-yourself cyborg kit unsurprisingly still has some trailblazing to do before people become comfortable with the concept.

  1. Can you imagine being pinned down by rubble in a collapsed building, when you suddenly find yourself surrounded by a swarm of cockroaches strapped with electronics? For someone with a fear of bugs and no knowledge of this technology, seeing that could really give them quite a shock!

    Not diminishing the value of this incredible technology, of course. Just trying to imagine what I would think seeing that swarm flood over the floor towards me.

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  2. Someone really took the idea popularized in 5th Element and ran with it.

    Awesome.

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    1. Actually, don’t you mean ‘Minority Report’?

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      1. Fifth Element release in 1998, Minority Report 2002.

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      2. Fifth Element released in 1998, Minority Report 2002. Both could have used the idea from someone though, not sure. I don’t remember one in Minority Report.

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