Take a look at how well a cockroach can follow a curving racecourse in the video below. The research was done at North Carolina State University's iBionics Laboratory.
(Roboroach Slalom Steering Video)
In this interview excerpt, assistant professor of engineering Alper Bozkurt, who led the roach biobot project, talks with National Geographic:
What exactly is a biobot? Is it like a cyborg, a combination of a living organism and a robot?
"Biobot" is short for "biological robot." It is the first stage of creating what we would call an insect cyborg.
Currently, we can steer these roaches remotely and make them stop, go, and turn. If we can have them interact independently with the technologies we've surgically implanted in them, then they will become true cyborgs.
Can you explain exactly how you are able to steer the biobots?
We use electric pulses to stimulate their antenna sensor cells, making them think there is an obstacle to navigate around.
Cockroaches use their antennae as touch sensors, similar to the way a blind person might use their hands to recognize the environment. So when we stimulate the antennal sensor on the roach's right side, it makes a left turn, and vice versa. We also stimulate their cerci to make them go forward. Cerci are the sensors at the very back of the insect that sense any predator behind.
Do the electrical pulses hurt the roaches?
No, there are a lot of scientific papers and evidence that show that invertebrates don't have the sense of pain as we, humans, perceive it. So it was not like we were zapping them and they were reacting to pain. Their reflexes were simply navigating them around perceived obstacles.
Your paper mentions that these biobots could help rescue earthquake survivors. How, exactly?
Their backpacks can carry a locator beacon and a tiny microphone to pick up cries for help. Of course, a human operator or computer still has to be listening and steering them... I don't think it will be very long before we can deploy them to actually help rescue people.
Science fiction fans know that the idea for steerable insects derives from Sparrowhawk, a 1990 science fiction novel by Dr. Thomas A. Easton.
"There's the brain, the spinal chord, the motor centers. A cable, here, from the controller to the interface plug... wires from that to the brain." She explained how the controller, a computer, translated movements of the tiller or control yoke and the throttle and brake pedals into electrical signals and routed them as appropriate to the jets or the genimal's motor centers, triggering the genimal's own nervous system into commanding its muscles to serve the driver. All the necessary programming was built into the hardware...
(Read more about the Roachster)
Philip K. Dick also played around with this idea in the mid-1960's. See the references for the housefly monitor (from Lies, Inc. ) and the commercial fly (from The Simulacra ).