Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Virtual reality for your robot cockroach

I have previously covered some interesting advances in the world of cyborg insects.

Biobot backpack (cockroach size) (source)
Latif and Bozkurt from North Carolina state university recently presented a paper (though I can't find a peer-reviewed publication on Pubmed), explaining their Biobot. They use the Madacascar hissing cockroach...

Hissing Cockroach (source). Terrifying.
... and attach a electrically stimulating 'backpack' (see first picture). They then stimulate the the antennae in a variety of ways to 'steer' the Biobot.

"In these studies, electrical pulses were applied to the insect to create biomechanical or sensory perturbations in the locomotory control system to steer it in desired directions, similar to steering a horse with bridle and reins." -Latif and Bozkurt

This is very similar to the backyard brains Roboroach, but the system created by Latif and Bozkurt is extremely precise. Rather than just making the Biobot turn when stimulated, Latif and Bozkurt can make the cockroach walk a specified line.

Pretty cool. The authors note that generally the cockroaches want to walk straight until they encounter an obstacle (or stimulation). So, sure, this is sort of like steering a horse with reins, but the horse has to be trained to know what the bridle signals mean. This setup is more like creating a virtual reality for the cockroach, where it thinks that it has 'run into' something at certain points on the line. This is similar to creating a virtual reality for worms by stimulating specific neurons with light.

Of course the practical applications of this are a little iffy. People always seems to say that these little insect-bots could be of use in disaster settings where people need to get some ground level surveillance of a rubble-littered area, but I think the scientific applications for this are what is really exciting. Being able to create a virtual reality of any shape or size could allow for tests of spatial navigation in the cockroach. You could even try to train the cockroach to find something or avoid something and the 'confuse it' by changing the virtual environment suddenly. Could it adapt?

© TheCellularScale

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