Following disasters such as earthquakes or tornadoes, it can be challenging to locate and rescue survivors from collapsed buildings. A group from North Carolina State University have designed “cockroach cyborgs” to aid in the search and rescue effort. The roaches’ antennae are connected to little electronic backpacks with microphones that draw them toward sound, like from the cries of a trapped individual. The team has published two papers describing this “biobot” technology, which utilizes Madagascar hissing cockroaches and a Kinect-based computer platform.
“In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors,” Alper Bozkurt said in a press release. Bozkurt was the senior author on both papers.
In order to accurately find the source of the sound, the team had to engineer two different kinds of biobots. The first type has one omnidirectional microphone that can pick up sound and transmit it back to first responders.
The second type of cockroach backpack has three directional microphones. The computer chip analyzes the sound coming in from the microphone array, and will tell the biobot to move toward the source of the noise. Of course, the rubble of a collapsed building is going to have a cacophony of sounds, from the cries panicked survivors, to falling debris, to the sound of extraction tools.
“The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter — like people calling for help — from sounds that don’t matter — like a leaking pipe,” Bozkurt says. “Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero in on where those sounds are coming from.”
The paper describing these acoustic sensors was presented on Wednesday at the IEEE Sensors 2014 conference in Valencia, Spain by lead author Eric Whitmire. The team has been able to successfully steer the biobots through sound in the lab, which you can see here:
Once the biobots have successfully aided rescuers in locating survivors, nobody wants them to be able to run free and continue to chase down the next source of sound. The team has also designed an invisible fencing system that keeps the biobots in a specified zone. In addition to preventing the public panic that would ensue from a roaming band of rogue roach cyborgs, keeping the biobots in close proximity of one another allows their devices to connect and act as a mobile wireless network.
The team presented a paper that detailed the invisible fence in August at the 36th Annual International IEEE EMBS Conference in Chicago. The fence can be seen in action here: