N.C. State University is giving new meaning to the term “roach control.”

Researchers have developed technology that can remotely steer cockroaches on a particular path. On top of that, they’re using video game technology to track roach movement. One potential application of this technology could be piloting the roaches through a dynamic environment, such as a collapsed building, in order to create a map for first responders.

The researchers control the roaches remotely via an interface wired into the roaches sensory organs. Electrical impulses guide the roach along the desired path. Tracking comes from using Microsoft’s Kinect system, which operates by sensing motion. While Microsoft probably did not envision this application of the gaming technology, university researchers say the map produced by these trailblazing roaches could show first responders the safest route to take.

“We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites,” Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering said in a statement. “The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation.”

The research appears in a paper, “Kinect-based System for Automated Control of Terrestrial Insect Biobots,” which will be presented at the Remote Controlled Insect Biobots Minisymposium at the 35th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society July 4 in Osaka, Japan. Lead author of the paper is NC State undergraduate Eric Whitmire. Co-authors are Bozkurt and NC State graduate student Tahmid Latif. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Cockroach ‘bait and switch’

The roach control research comes a month after N.C. State reported research findings that show German cockroaches have developed an aversion to sweetness – rendering useless the roach traps that use sugar as bait.

The aversion to sweetness has a genetic basis. Surviving roaches pass that trait to their offspring, resulting in large groups of roaches that steer clear of traps baited with anything sweet. Results of the study were published May 24 in the journal Science. Watch video of the study here.

Study co-author Coby Schal, an N.C. State professor of entomology and the corresponding author of the paper explaining the research, said the findings have implications on pest control. Schal says the pest-control arms race has mostly been about pests gaining resistance to the insecticides themselves. This paper, however, shows an arms race that includes behavioral resistance to certain types of food – in this case, glucose.

“Most times, genetic changes, or mutations, cause the loss of function,” Schal said in a statement. “In this case, the mutation resulted in the gain of a new function – triggering bitter receptors when glucose is introduced. This gives the cockroach a new behavior which is incredibly adaptive. These roaches just got ahead of us in the arms race.”