Insects are a ubiquitous part of our lives. Some of the most versatile insects belong to the order blattodea. Cockroaches are amazingly quick and hardy critters. They can run a meter a second and change directions 25 times a second. Their small size and sleek form factor make them easy to work with and difficult to capture. Their tough exoskeletons allow them to survive harsh environmental conditions and their muscular limbs allow them to carry weighty loads. In other words, this lean little beast is a perfect platform for robotics.
Imagine a tiny harness containing measurement and remote control mechanisms that can be strapped onto a cockroach, turning it into a remote-controlled probe. Now let’s scale the scenario up to tens, hundreds, or thousands of mobile units. Each unit carries a tiny camera and can be directed to any location via radio signals. Together with a computer control center, the swarm could be used to rapidly map out areas that humans would be loathe to investigate. This is just one of the many applications of such technology. But how can such a system be designed?
Cockroaches naturally avoid light. A simple way to control a cockroach would be to shine light at its left or right eye, which would prompt it to move in the darker direction. This had been shown to work many years ago.
Sensors such as cameras, ultrasonic rangers, and accelerometers now come in very compact packages. The roachtop platform could be made modular so that a variety of devices could be easily deployed.
Radio communication is essential for swarm robotics. Short-range solutions such as bluetooth would not work very well, but longer-range control mechanisms exist. There would be quite a bit of interference among the mobile units, so a mechanism needs to be devised that reduces such interference. The radio interface would need enough bandwidth to support the swarm.
Power is a main concern in small-scale robotics. Batteries tend to be bulky and heavy, and impose limits on how small robots could be and how long they could operate on one charge. Motility often uses a significant share of power resources, but the roachtop platform would not have this problem. Cockroaches are very efficient at converting food to motion, so the battery could be fully utilized in communication and application-oriented processes.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get some use out of a most disgusting critter?