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Giant Cockroaches Could Save Your Life One Day

posted: 06/26/17
by: Jason Ginsburg

An earthquake strikes. The building you're in collapses. You're trapped under tons of debris.

But help is on the way. The latest technology in search and rescue burrows under the rubble, detects you, and sends your status and location to the surface. You've been saved!

By giant hissing cockroaches.

Sound like a dream -- or maybe a nightmare? Edgar Lobaton, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at North Carolina State University, believes roaches could locate survivors during a disaster.

In an interview with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Lobaton put it simply: "The idea is to release a swarm of sensor-equipped biobots, such as the remotely controlled cockroaches, into a collapsed building or dangerous unmapped area."

Lobaton calls them "biobots" because the roaches would wear little backpacks fitted with two tiny microphones -- an omni-directional to detect sounds and a uni-directional to detect the sounds' location.

Biobots - image courtesy NC State University

If cyborg bugs weren't enough, Lobaton adds another sci-fi concept: Drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles would emit a beacon to corral the roaches into one area, preventing them from scattering everywhere. The drone would also pick up signals from the microphones and transmit that info to search and rescue teams. The roaches and the drone would assist each other, zeroing in on the sounds of survivors. Lobaton admits "there's no way really to naturally contain [roaches] in a specific area," so he needs "a leader to contain them: a drone to guide or herd the swarm."

After a successful find, the drone can direct the biobots to sunlight, where their batteries can recharge with solar panels, or redeploy them to continue the search.

VIDEO: An app that detects earthquakes

Some people in distress might prefer a robotic bug to appear out of the darkness, instead of a swarm of three-inch-long insects. But robots are complicated, expensive, and require heavy battery packs. Roaches aren't bothered by the dark (they're basically blind anyway), can carry many times their own weight (like ants), and they're immune to many levels of radiation.

Initial tests using roach-like robots have been promising. And the technology is cheap -- Lobaton says his prototype cost around $100. The next step is to suit up some roach volunteers for live trials.

Sure, you hate "roaches." But how do you feel about "heroic, live-saving biobots"?

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