Cyborg cockroach controlled using tiny microcircuit

Engineers at the University of Connecticut have developed a tiny neuro-controller for directing the movements of insects, testing it successfully on a cockroach.

(Credit: Abhishek Dutta/UConn)

The concept of controlling insects using electronics has been around for several years, with the bio-bots having potential use in search & rescue operations and as well as military applications. But interfacing electronics with the biological systems of insects is difficult and success so far has been limited. According to the UConn researchers, the four-channel microcircuitry of the new device and real-time feedback of the insect’s movements makes it easier for the operator to exert control over the insects.

The neuro-controller microcircuit is part of a tiny electronic backpack that can be attached to the insect with wires connected to its antennae lobes. By sending small electrical charges to neural tissue in either the left or right antenna lobe, operators can trick the insect into thinking it has detected an obstacle, causing it to move in another direction. A charge sent to the right antenna makes a cockroach move left, with a charge to the left antenna making it move right.

“The use of insects as platforms for small robots has an incredible number of useful applications from search and rescue to national defence,” said Abhishek Dutta, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UConn, who developed the circuit along with an undergraduate researcher in his lab, Evan Faulkner. “We believe our microcircuit provides a more sophisticated and reliable control system that brings us one step closer to real-world implementation of this technology.”

The controller uses a 9-axis inertial measurement unit inside to track an insect’s linear and rotational acceleration, identify its compass heading, and detects the ambient temperature surrounding the creature. This data is then transmitted to the operator’s smartphone via a tiny Bluetooth antenna. As the insect’s heading, acceleration, and other data comes in, operators can extrapolate the insect’s trajectory, adjust the antennae stimuli accordingly, and steer it in the desired direction.

Dutta and his team tested the device on a Madagascar hissing cockroach and were able to control its movement left and right. They noted, however, that the cockroach’s response to the stimulation declined with repeated applications, not turning as many degrees when subsequent pulses were delivered. The work was presented this week at the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience in Philadelphia.