Cockroaches typically elicit revulsion, not relief. Yet what if you were trapped in a collapsed building, and rescuers had sent in a cockroach to find you? A team of researchers has harnessed the cockroach's uncanny survivability in ways that could help humans in the wake of disasters. The scientists direct the insects' movements by sending wireless pulses to the roaches' antennae. Roaches use their antennae as touch sensors, so stimulating one makes a roach think there is an obstacle in its path, and it moves in the opposite direction. “What we do is similar to riding a horse,” says Alper Bozkurt of North Carolina State University's department of electrical and computer engineering. Bozkurt and doctoral candidate Tahmid Latif presented their research in August at the 34th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society.

The team fitted Madagascar hissing cockroaches with electrical devices that look like backpacks. Each backpack had a printed circuit board with a microcontroller, wireless signal receiver and lithium-ion polymer battery. Tiny stainless-steel electrodes connected the circuit board to the roaches' antennae. The researchers then wirelessly sent electrical impulses to the backpacks' receiver, which stimulated either the left or right antenna. In the future, the roaches might have a tiny camera through which rescue workers could check for survivors. Bozkurt and Latif see their roaches as an alternative to small-scale robots, which are challenging to design.