Called the "first commercially available cyborg," RoboRoach is a way of sending directional commands to a live cockroach via a smartphone app.
Credit: Backyard Brains
A project currently on Kickstarter would give supporters the tools to remote-control a cockroach using their smartphones.
Called RoboRoach, the project is billed as "the world's first commercially available cyborg" and comes from a group of educational researchers called Backyard Brains from Ann Arbor, Mich.
RoboRoach has three components: a cockroach with surgically implanted electrical stimulators, a cockroach-size "backpack" that transmits these signals to a smartphone and an app that allows users to send the cockroach directional commands.
The controls build off of the cockroach's existing biology: Cockroaches navigate by feeling their surroundings with their long antennae. When the antennae touch something, the neurons within them send an electrical impulse to the cockroach's brain, letting the roach know that there's an obstacle in its way.
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The RoboRoach takes advantage of this natural mechanism to control the cockroach's direction. First, the researchers surgically implant an electrical stimulator into the cockroach's antennae, a process which involves removing one of the cockroach's six legs.
Then, once the cockroach has recovered, they place a small "backpack" on the cockroach's back that connects these stimulators with a control interface — in this case, a smartphone app.
Once it's all set up, users can direct the cockroach's movements by opening the app and dragging their thumb left or right across the screen. The cockroach will then move in the indicated direction.
Touching the screen sends an electrical stimulus through the cockroach's antennae, which makes it think it's encountered an obstacle.
Neither the surgery nor the actual process hurt the cockroaches, Backyard Brains says. The cockroaches are anesthetized before the surgery, and there's no evidence of a pain or a fear response when the cockroaches' antennae are electrically stimulated. Younger cockroaches will also regrow the missing leg. [See also: 10 Animal-Inspired Robots]
In fact, the frequency is so mild that after a few minutes the cockroach will stop responding to it. Users will have to readjust the frequency of their stimulation signals from the app, which Backyard Brains says is another opportunity for users to conduct their own neurological experiments.
RoboRoach has been under development for three years and gone through 11 iterations. The project's developers say it's more than just a neat trick — it's a learning tool, designed to teach neuroscience principles to people at a young age. [See also: $100 Device Lets Home Scientists Experiment with Brain Science]
"We want to create neural interfaces that the general public can use. … If we can allow this technology to get into the hands of younger people, we can begin the neuro revolution," they say on the Kickstarter site.