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Question Your World: What Good Are Cockroaches?

For a long time humanity has employed animals to assist us in living a bit more comfortably. We’re familiar with the use of cows, horses, and dogs, but what about cockroaches? Listen to this week's Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

Throughout human history animals have played an important role in our technological progress. For example, horses and oxen were used for pulling the plow, arguably one of the most important early inventions for humanity. Since then we’ve used dogs to help the disabled, birds to send messages, and even leaches for old medical use. As we move forward in our technological growth we’re able to employ other animals that we normally would not have considered too appealing. 

Cockroaches have been around for a long time, dating all the way back to the era of dinosaurs! So, it’s about time we stopped getting grossed out by them and gave them a job. Recently scientists have been playing around with ways to manipulate and control cockroach behavior for our benefit. Earthquakes and other natural disasters create situations in which humans get trapped under rubble. This issue is of great concern to recovery workers because they can never tell how many people there are, how far into the rubble they are trapped, or any of the other details. This is where science comes in to save the day!

Scientists at North Caroline State University have taken a cockroach and turned it into a remote control rubble traveling surveillance worker. Cockroaches are small and can easily maneuver through layers of rubble way better than humans can. This allows them to go deep into hazardous sites and report back on what’s there. Here’s how it works. On the tail end of the insect’s body are sensory nodes called the cerci. These act as antenna on the other side of the body. By placing some electric sensors on the cerci scientists are able to control the cockroach’s movements. The animal turns left when their sensory node tells them to turn left, the scientists simply provide the directions and the animal follows along. Pretty brilliant. To take this to yet another level these mini-rescue workers are to be equipped with a microphone and a speaker. This is to communicate with the trapped victims. Once the cockroach is near a trapped human, scientists at a distance can communicate with the victim and send help directly to the location as needed. 

Being trapped in a pile of rubble is already scary and seeing a cockroach may not be the most appealing idea, but this idea could have a massive impact on how rescue workers conduct searches and recovery missions. Yet another remarkable use for animals by humans. Basically this is like a very helpful remote control car, but way more gross! The amazing process of science!

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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