Techno ButterflyTake an organism and surgically install a backpack of electrodes and a microprocessor to its thorax. Now use a remote control to send signals to the backpack to control the creature’s movements. If you equip enough organisms in this manner, and if they are large and powerful enough, and your method of control contains enough accuracy, you could potentially use your robot-creatures to take over the entire Earth. But if the creatures you’re using are only cockroaches, the most you’ll be able to do is make them to crawl into tight spaces, do some surveillance work, and perhaps rescue a few victims of natural disasters – very important tasks.

In early 2006, researchers in the bio-robotic department of Tsukuba University in Japan (which consists of a microbiotics team and a group of biologists), were given a $5 million grant to conduct experiments in which the movements of cockroaches could be controlled. Their procedure went like this: First, the insects were gassed with carbon dioxide, then their wings and antennae were removed so small backpacks could be fitted to their thoraxes and electrodes could be placed over their antennae regions. Next, the researchers used remote controls to send signals to the backpacks, and the electrodes stimulated the roaches’ legs into moving wherever the researchers commanded.

Although control over the insects was not perfectly accurate, the scientists could make their nerves twitch enough to provide awkward movement. One problem the team encountered was that the backpacks would receive spam email from cell phones. So now they are developing spam filters for their robo-roaches. The scientists bred and used American cockroaches (Perplaneta americana) since they are a much tougher and larger species than normal. (They said the insects were quite smelly and unpleasant to work with).

In the end the bio-robotic team dubbed the experiment a success and concluded it will have significance in various areas in which insects can function in ways humans cannot. Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when much larger and more powerful organisms can be controlled with remote controls and electrode backpacks, just to make it more fun. (Of course PETA may have a problem with this.)