Cyborg Cockroaches Programmed to Move in Formation

In an experiment out of The Terminator, scientists released a hoard of 20 cyborg cockroaches into a sandy artificial desert. Each live insect wore a tiny computer backpack that could control and steer them across the terrain.

Each backpack consisted of a battery, mini-computer, and an antenna. The antenna allowed the scientists to communicate with the Madagascar hissing roaches and prompted them to move as a swarm.

The high-tech backpacks attached to the cerci (sensory organs) of the insects. The electrodes applied a current to the left or right cercus. The cockroach then turned in that direction.

This has been done before with insects, but the problem has always been getting them to move as a group, since most insects vary in their reactions to the input.

An overview of the the cyborg swarm navigation

An overview of the cyborg swarm. Photo: Yang Bai et al, 2024


Tour guides as models

In overcoming this, the scientists were inspired by human tour guides and the groups that trail behind them. They assigned one of the 20 insects as leader. The others then received a swarm command in which the leader was the target to follow. Only the leader received the final destination, and the rest just followed along behind.

The group successfully made it across the hilly sand and around obstacles. The researchers used a combination of the roaches’ own behaviors and navigation instructions from the computer. Using live cockroaches is essential: the computer can control the direction they move, but not the movement of their limbs. It would be incredibly hard to mimic this mechanically.

So while the scientists directed the bugs, the roaches themselves scrambled over the obstacles. When a cockroach accidentally rolled over onto its back, the rest of the insects in the group helped get it back on its feet.

Hirotaka Sato, who worked on the study, told New Scientist that they hope the cockroaches could become bio-robots. These cyborg roaches have many potential uses, including search missions after natural disasters.

The idea would be to carry a group of live cyborg cockroaches to a chosen site inside a larger robot and then release them. They would be able to return to the larger robot to recharge the equipment and feed.

“This research contributes to the domain of swarm robotics and showcases the potential of integrating biological organisms with robotics,” the scientists explained.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.