The idea of providing cockroaches with cars seems kind of a nightmare scenario -- they skitter around fast enough on their own, thank you, and their unpredictable maneuvers could wreak havoc with highway traffic.
When Garnet Hertz, a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, put roaches behind the wheel, it was not to help the little guys get around faster, but to study their rapid reactions and movements as a possible means of improving robotic navigation through biological mimicry.
He has devised a three-wheeled aluminum cart a couple of feet high and topped it with a computer trackball pointer that he modified by using a lighter-weight pingpong ball. To drive the contraption, he harnesses a mouse-size Madagascar hissing cockroach to the ball with a Velcro seat belt. When the roach scampers on the ball, the cart moves in the same direction.
A semicircle of lights surrounds the roach’s driving territory and helps direct traffic. Infrared sensors provide navigational feedback, causing a light to go on when the “Robo-roach” approaches an object or wall. Because roaches dislike light, they tend to swerve away from obstacles.
Hertz hopes that his project will add to the discussion of biohybrid robots -- devices that combine mechanical structures with biological intelligence. Who knows -- perhaps it also could one day lead to a robotic exterminator that would anticipate where the little critters will run and zap them in flight!