This cockroach could save your life

This week, our columnist Claudette Sandecki talks about hissing cockroaches that may be used for search and rescue

Sniffer dogs may soon be replaced by cockroaches as first responders searching for survivors in the rubble of earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes. The State University of Raleigh, North Carolina is testing Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches for searching crevices too confined for dogs.

North Carolina State’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is saddling adult “Hissers” with electrical devices that look like backpacks. Each backpack includes a thin, rigid, printed circuit board with a micro controller, a wireless signal receiver, miniature plugs for connecting stimulation electrodes and a tiny lithium-ion polymer battery.

“What we do is similar to riding a horse,” lead experimenter Alper Bozkurt says. “The cockroach walks naturally, and we simulate barriers by sending pulses to its antenna. They use their antenna as touch sensors, so stimulation on one side  makes them think they are about to bump into a barrier, and directs these insects towards the opposite direction.” The greater the electrical charge, the more sharply the roaches changed direction. Pulses have to be strong enough to steer the insect without tasering their tissues until they become insensitive and no longer respond to gee or haw. As the insect beetles along a path, a tiny light on its rear end winks like the light under an aircraft’s wing.

Bozkurt’s next step is to miniaturize the backpack even further and gain more precise control of movement. The goal is to outfit the insects to transmit audio or low grade video from their underground searches.

I would wager one thing: If a disaster survivor – especially a survivor unable to move  – suddenly finds himself face to face with a Hisser, amplified audio won’t be necessary for his scream to be clearly heard above ground.

The researchers see remote-control cockroaches as an alternative to small-scale robots. Designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at navigating hostile environments, according to Bozkurt.

The Hisser’s natural habitat is rotten logs; they eat decomposing vegetation and smaller insects; thus they would be able to feed themselves while spelunking in pitch black tangles of lumber and other wooden debris.

Their nickname Hisser derives from the snake-like hissing sound adults make by expelling air through breathing openings in their thorax and abdomen. Males, primarily, hiss when disturbed, as a female luring mechanism, or to warn off other males encroaching on their harem or territory.

Hisser cockroaches are sold in pet stores to feed iguanas and tarantulas. Wingless, they can’t fly. They stay calm, are easy to handle, and don’t bite or injure people in any way. They prefer humid higher temperatures which makes them perfect for searching through the destruction left by tropical disasters.

They have been featured in movies such as Bug, Damnation Alley, and Starship Troopers, according to Wikipedia, where their hissing sound makes them seem menacing.

If North Carolina’s miniaturizing of the backpacks works out and experiments prove successful, the adoption of Hissers as a regular component of search and rescue could open a lucrative form of small animal husbandry. An empty fish tank smeared around the top with a four inch vaseline barrier, a nursery of cardboard egg cartons, a dish of ground dog food and another of water, and half a dozen Hissers including one female, and you could be in business.

Manufacturing the teeny saddles could keep child labourers busy during lulls in electronics sales.

But already People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are complaining shocking these cockroaches’ antennae to steer them is cruel and unacceptable.