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Search and Rescue Cockroaches?

September 21st, 2012

Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. Photo credit: Houston Museum of Natural Science

HTE has a guest post today from a kids’ international news publication based in Britain, called We like them a lot. gives you an indepth rundown of what’s going on around the world every two weeks. You’d need to subscribe to it to get it, but you can get a free trial via HTE by clicking on the link  (if you’re under 13, you’ll need an adult). 


Engineers in the U.S. have come up with a new idea that could be helpful in search and rescue operations in the future. After attaching very small specially designed electric devices, or “backpacks”, to several cockroaches they were able to control the insects’ movements.

For some time, scientists have thought that it would be useful to build very small remote-controlled robots. These could then be sent into spaces that were far too small for a human to enter.

For example, when powerful earthquakes strike it is not unusual for people to become trapped inside collapsed buildings. It can be difficult to find these people and, if they are still alive, take a long time to rescue them. A small robot that is able to move through tiny spaces between the rubble of a collapsed building would be very useful. It may be able to reach those who are trapped as well as find out if they are alive.

Designing tiny robots that can be controlled remotely is not easy. What’s more they would need to be powered by a type of battery that would make them much larger. The engineers therefore thought that it would be a good idea to use a cockroach, as it could crawl into tiny spaces and small cracks, and didn’t need a battery.

However, as the cockroaches would need to have an electrical device attached to their backs it was thought that those found in the U.S. were too small. The engineers therefore decided to use a type of cockroach found in Madagascar instead. Called hissing cockroaches they are roughly twice as big as the ones that live in the U.S. Adult hissing cockroaches can grow to a length of three inches (7.6 centimeters).

Cockroaches don’t have lungs. They therefore don’t breathe in the same way as mammals do. Instead, they have small breathing holes called spiracles along the sides of their bodies. Hissing cockroaches are unusual. Unlike other cock- roaches they are able to force air out of these breathing holes. When they do this it makes a hissing noise. The large insects are also very good climbers. They can even walk up pieces of glass.

To control which way the cockroaches were crawling the engineers attached wires from the backpacks to their antennae. Cockroaches use their antennae to sense objects. So their antennae tell them to change direction if they bump into something such as a wall. Another wire was attached to the rear of the insect.

By sending small electrical pulses through the wires it is possible to get the cockroaches to go in the direction that you want them to.

A small pulse to the left antenna will make the insect go right and one to the right one will make it go left. A pulse sent to the wire at the back of the cockroach makes it think that something is creeping towards it. This, therefore, makes the insect move forward. As an experiment the engineers managed to “steer” several cockroaches so they followed a large “S” shape.

The engineers say that a lot more work needs to be done before the hissing cockroaches could be used for any search and rescue operation. However, they claim, their experiments show that it would be possible to use hissing cockroaches in this way. One explained that controlling cockroaches like this was similar to using the reins when riding a horse.

Interested in more stories like this? You can click on this link to be taken to via HTE . ( is a third-party website. If you are under 13 years old, please make sure to have your adult or caregiver do it with you).

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