The remote control of robots, toys, and household electronics is nothing new in the technological world. Though few can imagine controlling the movements of a living animal in the same way we control inanimate technology, research on making this possible has been conducted at the State University of New York and North Carolina State University. These remote control animals have been called biobots or “biological robots” due to the combination of animal and robotics used to create these unique organisms. The two animals successfully used in these experiments were cockroaches and rats.
In 2002 the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the State University of New York used stimulation of certain rat brain areas to navigate rats remotely through complex obstacle courses from distances as far as 500 m away. The researchers used the same principles used in operant learning paradigms, which encourage animals to produce certain behaviors when given specific external cues by rewarding them (usually with food) if they preform the behavior correctly when the cue appears. Rather than using external cues or food reward, the researchers instead used direct brain stimulation as stand-ins for cue and reward. The two areas stimulated were the somatosensory cortical (SI) whisker representations and the medial forebrain bundle (MFB). Stimulation of the SI whisker representations caused the rat to feel as if their right or left whiskers had been “touched” and were used to steer the rat right or left. Stimulation of the MFB acted as a reward for the rats and encouraged them to move forward. Researchers found that they could guide rats through mazes including high steps upward or downward and even areas they normally would avoid like brightly lit, open areas.
Similarly, in 2012 North Carolina State University revealed the exciting new remote controlled cockroach. Rather than using brain stimulation, the cockroaches were controlled by stimulation of external sensory organs. These organs were the ceri and the antennae. The ceri is located on the roach’s abdomen and is normally used to detect movement in air that may indicate a predator is approaching, causing the roach to run away. Stimulation of the ceri spurred the roach forward. Stimulation of the antennae acted like “reins” to redirect the roach. The animal believes there is a physical barrier when one antenna is stimulated and will move in the opposite direction of the stimulation (i.e., stimulate left antenna, roach moves right).
Both studies concluded that they foresee their remote control subjects as being useful in search and rescue situations. Rats and cockroaches would be able to fit into small spaces between the rubble of fallen buildings or even be a safer way to detect landmines in areas too dangerous for humans. In any case, these biobots bring animal training to a whole new level of sophistication.
Check out this CNN story on the biobot roaches!
Latif, T., & Bozkurt, A. (2012). Line following terrestrial insect biobots. Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBC), 972-975.
Talwar, S. K., Xu, S., Hawley, E. S., Weiss, S. A., Moxon, K. A., & Chapin J. K. (2002). Rat navigation guided by remote control. Nature, 417, 37-38.