Sept. 26 - Researchers at North Carolina State University are turning cockroaches into joystick-controlled cyborgs for use in search and rescue operations. With a wireless interface and tiny electrodes, the scientists say they are attempting to capitalise on the insects' unique ability to scuttle in and out of the tiniest crevice. Ben Gruber reports.
Professor Alper Bozkurt loves cockroaches. Where most people see a pest, Bozkurt sees a six legged partner. Bozkurt and his team are developing a cyborg cockroach - a living insect with electrodes connected to its sensory organs. One day he says, the roach will be an essential tool in search and rescue operations. It'll be adapted to carry a miniature camera or microphone into buildings flattened by earthquakes to look for survivors. And it'll be controlled remotely by humans. These electrodes act as an interface that allow the researchers to steer the cockroach with a joystick. The principle electrodes are attached to the insect's antennae. With the press of a button, the researchers send an electrical pulse which manipulates the roach's senses. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ALPER BOZKURT, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "What we do is basically simulate some sort of virtual obstacles in front of them, in our cockroach experiments, by stimulating their antennae and to avoid those obstacles they turn right and they turn left." And they can direct the roach to move forward as well, with a third electrode connected to the rear of the cockroaches abdomen. Bozkurt says when this electrode is activated it tricks the insect into believing it's being chased by a non-existent predator. But the team's experiments have not come without controversy. Many people - even those who hate cockroaches - have questioned the ethics of using a living creature as a tool. But Bozkurt dismisses the critics. He says steering a roach with a remote control is much the same as steering a horse with reins, something humans have been doing for thousands of years. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ALPER BOZKURT, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We don't believe that we induce any sort of feeling of pain to the insect with our stimulations. Many people may be thinking that we are zapping the insect and it tries to avoid the pain and it goes in the other direction but biologically, there are a lot of research publications and evidence out there which suggest that there is no concept of pain for the insect." Bozkurt says there are many years of research ahead before his roaches are ready for search and rescue operations. In the meantime he says he wants people to see that there's more to the cockroach than meets the eye.