Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a combination of software and hardware that they say will allow the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and insect cyborgs, or biobots, to map large, unfamiliar areas—such as collapsed buildings after a disaster.
“The idea would be to release a swarm of sensor-equipped biobots—such as remotely controlled cockroaches—into a collapsed building or other dangerous, unmapped area,” says Edgar Lobaton, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Using remote-control technology, we would restrict the movement of the biobots to a defined area."
That area would be defined by proximity to a beacon on a UAV—for example, the biobots could be prevented from going more than 20 meters from the UAV. The biobots would be allowed to move freely within the defined area and signal researchers via radio waves whenever they came close to each other. Custom software would then use an algorithm to translate the biobot sensor data into a rough map of the unknown environment.
Once the program receives enough data to map the defined area, the UAV would move to hover over an adjacent, unexplored section. The biobots would move with it, and the mapping process would be repeated. The software program would then stitch the new map to the previous one. This could be repeated until the entire region or structure has been mapped; the map could then be used by first responders or other authorities.
“This has utility for areas—like collapsed buildings—where GPS can’t be used,” Lobaton says. “A strong radio signal from the UAV could penetrate to a certain extent into a collapsed building, keeping the biobot swarm contained. And as long as we can get a signal from any part of the swarm, we are able to retrieve data on what the rest of the swarm is doing.”
To test their new mapping technology, the research team relied on inch-and-a-half-long robots that simulate cockroach behavior. The researchers released the robots into a maze-like space, with the effect of the UAV beacon emulated using an overhead camera and a physical boundary attached to a moving cart. The cart was moved as the robots mapped the area.
The next step is to replicate the experiment using biobots.