The next time you're about to stomp a cockroach, you might want to think twice. A team of scientists from North Carolina State University has developed technology that may one day enable the insect to save lives.
Using video game technology, researchers have figured out how to put the roaches on autopilot, directing them along a pre-designed path. They hope that one day, the technology could be used to send the bugs into areas that are unsafe for humans to enter, such as collapsed buildings or other disaster areas.
And by fitting the roaches with microphones and speakers, rescuers could detect the voices of individuals trapped in buildings, researchers said.
"We may even be able to attach small speakers, which would allow rescuers to communicate with anyone who is trapped," said co-author Alper Bozkurt, in a statement.
The team of researchers had previously developed technology that allowed users to steer the roaches remotely, but ran into problems because the people operating the controls made mistakes while piloting the insects.
"We used joysticks, like the kind you fly remote airplanes with," Bozkurt told ABC News. "But some of our insects didn't respond well to our commands."
This new step in their research allows the team to create pre-planned paths for the insects to follow.
The researchers used Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect system to plug in a plotted path for the roach and track its progress. The controls are harnessed to the roaches' bodies, connecting to their antennae and sensory appendages. The researchers use the wires attached to the sensory appendages, or cerci, to spur the roach into motion, while wires attached to the antennae send small electrical impulses that steer the roach in a certain direction, according to the report.
"We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites," Bozkurt said in the statement. "The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation."
In their experiments, Bozkurt either physically or digitally sketches a path for the roaches, ABC News reported. The Kinect system detects where the cockroach is relative to the path, and can send a signal that is transmitted to a circuit on the roach's back if it veers off track.
Bozkurt also said that the Kinect software brings other advantages, like being able to control the roaches in the dark, according to Slate.
Although the Kinect would not be able to see through rubble and debris in a collapsed building, Bozkurt told ABC News that a colleague of his is creating a different way to visualize the environment, using radio waves to locate the cockroaches.