Researchers out of the University of Connecticut took to the 2018 Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience in Philadelphia to present new hardware which could improve control over cybernetic biobots such as human-controlled cyborg cockroaches. In fact, that's exactly how the new neuro-controller microcircuit developed by assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering Abhishek Dutta and undergraduate researcher Evan Faulkner is being used. For clarity, these types of experiments and research have been ongoing for years. However, a persistent problem with the research has been getting the biological robots to move in a specified direction. Using the new controller, which is wired directly into the insect's antenna lobes, the researchers were able to prompt a left or right movement via 'slight' electrical charges to the right or left lobe – for left or right movement, respectively.
What makes the new system unique is its use of four-channel microcircuitry, allowing for immediate feedback regarding the insect's response to the charges. That's relayed to connected computer equipment via a nine-axis inertial measurement readout which provides a precise measurement of both linear and rotational acceleration, in addition to a compass-based direction and ambient temperature of the cockroaches environment. Taken together, Dutta and Faulkner say those metrics allow the insect's position to be determined and its expected response-level gauged. Bluetooth is used to form the connective link between equipment, enabling control from a huge variety of devices ranging from a proprietary controller to a smartphone.
The first use cases for the technology would include search and rescue missions or Department of Defense applications, according to the researchers. However, there are still challenges to overcome in spite of the progress that's been made. One of the bigger of those is determining how to maintain control in varying environments since environmental factors still have a big impact on the performance of the biological host. More speculatively, the ability to cease or continue movement would be useful in circumstances where stopping to look around can make a difference, such as in rescue operations. As components continue to be improved and to shrink in size, it wouldn't be altogether surprising to see cameras and microphones added to the array of onboard equipment either. In the meantime, research is ongoing and more work is planned in pursuit of the overall goal to eventually add biological robots to the ever-increasing variety of connected technologies.