Scientists Steer Live Cockroaches With a Remote Control

Cockroaches walking in a line on a white background.

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When you were a kid growing up, you might have thought the remote control was the coolest thing ever. If you were lucky, you might have owned a remote-control car, a remote-control boat, or (if you were really lucky) a remote-control airplane. But what remote-control toys might kids of the future yearn to play with?

Well, thanks to researchers at North Carolina State University, remote-control cockroaches might be an option, according to

You heard that right. Researchers have attached wireless electrical circuits to the backs of roaches — effectively transforming them into cyborg roaches — and have learned how to steer the live animals at their command. But why, you might ask?

"Our aim was to determine whether we could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces," explained Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC State. "Ultimately, we think this will allow us to create a mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information, such as finding survivors in a building that's been destroyed by an earthquake."

In other words, if you ever become trapped underneath earthquake rubble, the first sign of rescue might someday be the arrival of cockroaches. You have to hand it to the researchers: at the very least, the technology has the potential to overhaul the reputation of these previously unwelcome creepy-crawlies.

Researchers noted that they considered inventing cockroach-like robots for the task, but decided to go with bio-biotic cockroaches instead because "designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at performing in such a hostile environment."

So remote-control cockroaches it was. Of course, working with live animals comes with its own set of challenges. For instance, researchers needed to find an electrically safe way to control the roaches without causing neural and tissue damage. The new technique they developed involves attaching a lightweight wireless receiver and transmitter to each roach. Each of these "backpacks" is assembled so that a buffer exists between the electrodes and the animal's tissue. The backpacks are then wired to a roach's primary sense organs: its antennae and cerci.

Scientists controlled the roaches by manipulating these sense organs. The cerci was stimulated to make the roach scurry forward, much in the same way that it might instinctually flee when it senses an approaching predator (or perhaps a rapidly descending shoe). Meanwhile, wires attached to the animal's antennae acted like reins, steering the animal left and right as it turned to avoid false electrical "walls."

The method is surprisingly effective. Check out this video of researchers steering a cockroach along a curved line:

The technology is a bit eerie, not only because it involves cyborg cockroaches, but also because it makes you wonder whether some similar (though much more sophisticated) technology might one day be used to remotely control other animals — perhaps even humans. Until that day comes, though, the technology could be a force for good, improving the success of rescue workers and possibly revolutionizing how the military does reconnaissance.