A cockroach community recently had its collective mind changed—by a group of tiny robots. Certain animals engage in what’s known as self-organization. Picture a school of fish or a flock of birds. Scientists have been researching autonomous robot systems based on this concept.
What about mixed groups of, say, bots and bugs? A paper detailing this new animal-robot cooperation was published in the November 16 issue of Science. First, cockroaches were left alone in an area with two choices of shelter. After scurrying around, the group chose the darker shelter. Then came the robots. They look nothing like cockroaches. In fact, they more closely resemble tiny trucks. But apparently they smelled enough like roaches to trick the insects. The robo-roaches were trained to prefer the lighter shelter. They behaved like roaches, and eventually convinced the group to choose the lighter shelter in more than half the trials. But the robots sometimes were convinced by the roaches, too. In 40 percent of the trials, they joined the real-live roaches, and the group chose the darker shelter. The work signals a new app-“roach” for future research in animal-machine collaboration.