Cyborg cockroaches are being trained to sniff out earthquake survivors

Implanted with electrodes

A team of bioboticists at North Carolina State University is developing an army of cybernetically-enhanced cockroaches to map out disaster areas and pinpoint survivors trapped beneath rubble.

Each bug is equipped with tiny electrodes that stimulate antennae - making the insect think that there's an obstacle on the right when the controller wants them to turn left. Over the last five years, with the help of miniature backpacks carrying microphones, Alper Bozkurt and his team have successfully trained the cockroaches to pick up sounds.

Now he's working on getting them to map out a specific area. The area is defined by a drone hovering above, which sets out an invisible radio 'fence' that the insects cannot cross. It also serves as a relay for the signals going to and from each insect - and could even 'airdrop' them into tricky locations.

Simulations

As well as microphones, the cockroaches could carry other sensors in their 'backpacks'. "Infrared sensors can help for finding warm bodies," Bozkurt told New Scientist. Propane sensors to find out whether there's gas leaks. Geiger counters for radioactivity."

So far, the team has only simulated a disaster zone for the cyborg insects to traverse - but real-world tests will be conducted within the next two months. The details of the group's research have been published on the ArXiv preprint server.