However, Gromphadorhina Portentosa, or the Madagascar hissing cockroach to its friends, might be about to take a lead role in rescuing people from natural disasters.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have been experimenting with ‘biobots’, a technical term for remote-controlled insects. Previous work had demonstrated the team’s ability to control the cockroaches in both open and maze-like environments and the goal now is to use to insects to find people buried after earthquakes and similar disasters. Roaches are nimble and, as anyone faced with an infestation knows, the insects can get anywhere.
Tiny ‘backpacks’ loaded with electronics robotise the roaches (as pictured below). These packs also contain microphones that can send sound back to rescuers. ‘In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors,’ says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and senior author of two papers on the roaches.
Directional and omnidirectional acoustic sensors could detect calls for help from victims buried under rubble, locate these victims by tracking the source of
the sound, and establish a communication channel with first responders.
‘The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter – like people calling for help – from sounds that don’t matter – like a leaking pipe,’ Bozkurt adds.
The research team has also constructed an invisible fence, which uses short pulses from the roach’s backpack to keep it in the search area. With solar power added into the mix, and the roach’s natural resilience, the insects will make long-lived rescuers, although they’ll never be as adorable as a St. Bernard.
This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine