Roblog

Roblog: Roboroaches Bring Robotics to Your Front Door

By Ashley Hansberry • January 24, 2013 at 10:00 am


Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction comes true and an impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Thursday for a new blog of robot rants.

Maybe in Roblog’s absence you’ve wondered how you could bring robots into your own lives. You don’t go to a college with robo-librarians, you can’t afford a Quadcopter, and robot themed movies just aren’t doing it for you. The good news is that you’re not out of luck.

Thanks to Backyard Brains, for $99.99 plus one unwelcome house guest, you can have your very own. Roboroach, the remote control cockroach kit, is “the world’s first commercially available cyborg.” After performing a simple roach surgery to attach electrodes to a bug’s antennae and a “backpack” to its back to house the computer and batteries, a bug that will respond to commands from a remote control can be yours.

The roboroach's "backpack" allows it to be controlled with a simple remote control. | Image courtesy Backyard Brains.

The roboroach’s “backpack” allows it to be controlled with a simple remote control. | Image courtesy Backyard Brains.

While controlling a clumsy roach isn’t on the cutting edge of robotic technology, the introduction of DIY cyborg kits is exciting, if not spooky. First, performing roach surgery is not for everyone. There’s nothing pleasant about even looking at a cockroach, let alone touching one. Commenters on the announcement of the sale of roboroach kits were quick to worry about how ethical it is to turn a living roach into a remote control toy. While its inventors compare the electrical stimulation to tugging a horse’s reigns, before making a roboroach, customers should be aware that they are putting another living thing’s life in their hands in a very real way.

Despite any uneasy feelings that seem to come along with the ability to purchase a cyborg, the idea behind roboroach kits is more than just having fun. Backyard Brains co-founder, Greg Gage, hopes that the kit, like others available on the site, will “inspire the next generation of neuroscientists.” The robot isn’t about playing with bugs; it’s purpose is to encourage people to think of neuroscience in new and innovative ways. Understanding how we can manipulate the movement of a bug with electrical stimulation is the first step towards looking into the possibility of  manipulating human brains in similar ways, hopefully ending in someday finding treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

In addition to encouraging the study of the brain, a team at North Carolina State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, however, see’s another meaningful use for these roboroaches. Cockroaches are known for their incredible survival skills, making them good candidates to be able to survive and get around in disaster scenarios. By harnessing the natural heartiness of a cockroach, the team is hoping that cockroaches can someday be used in disaster relief. Designing tiny robots that can maneuver tricky terrain is difficult, so why not take advantage of the bug’s natural skills? In the future, roaches equipped with backpacks full of GPS trackers or cameras could scout out missing persons or routes to safety. The technology would be more cost effective than typical robots and could be ready for the field in the near future.

Bringing robotics to the masses is an increasingly major trend in the field, and it’s no surprise why. Before robots are going to be able to solve any real world problems, they are going to need to become less expensive and more accessible. Using cyborgs, despite potential ethical concerns, is a refreshing and innovative take on these issues. In fact, cockroaches just might be the start robotics needs to achieve meaningful goals, while still being realistic to the current constraints of technology.


Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.