Humans and cockroaches tend to run away from each other, but new developments out of the labs of North Carolina State University could send the resilient insects scurrying toward disaster survivors.

NC State researchers have advanced the ability of biobots, biological entities fused with electronics, by equipping cockroaches with the equipment necessary to track sounds. The researchers see the technology having major implications in search and rescue mission, in which survivors are pinned beneath rubble.

Picking up sounds is the best approach to finding survivors in a collapsed building, says Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor at NC States' electrical and computer engineering division. The professor has authored two papers on the research in equipping biobots with microphones.

"The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter - like people calling for help - from sounds that don't matter - like a leaking pipe," says Bozkurt.

After isolating the important audio, rescue teams can use the biobots to get the exact the location of the source of the sounds, Bozkurt says. One type of biorobotic cockroach will use high-resolution microphones to perform a wide-area scan of the disaster area, while a second kind of biobot will use three-microphone arrays to home in on the source.

To keep the biorobotic cockroaches from wandering out of the search perimeter, researchers have developed what they're calling an "invisible fence."

The NC State researchers have created a system for pushing cockroaches to finding disaster survivors, but the ability to control the insects like remote-controlled cars was already in place. Controlling the insects is a matter of rigging them up with wireless relay circuitry that can feed electrical impulses across the cockroaches antenna, prompted them to head in the desired direction.

Thanks to an algorithm created by the research team at NC State and the invisible fence, the six-legged biobots can be sent on search missions without requiring a human to guide the cockroach through the disaster area.

While the NC State researchers conclude work on a terrestrial approach to disaster management, Google's clandestine Google X division has been working on an aerial solution to deliver relief to areas ravaged by calamity. Google X has been prepping drones that could some day drop supplies to survivors and refugees, well before rescue and aid workers are able to set boots on the ground.

"Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously, could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation," said Astro Teller, head of Google X.

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