Countdown with Keith Olbermann (MSNBC)
Robo-roach: Bionic bug takes control of the driver's seat

June 9th 2005

For the most part, cockroaches show up in homes without an invitation. Countdown Host Keith Olbermann introduces you to one mechanical roach that's a welcome edition at the University of California.

A big brown cockroach sits in the drivers seat of a robot designed by one graduate student at the University of California. But this is no ordinary in-your basement, or under the refrigerator type bug. This is a Robo-roach.

Garnet Hertz uses a Madagascar hissing cockroach, which can sometimes grow as big as a mouse, to man the wheel. Hertz developed a three-wheeled cart that stands knee-level. On top of the structure sits a computer trackball pointer that has been replaced by a heavier ping-pong ball. The roach sits at the helm and controls the robot with its slight movement. The robot is designed to move in the same direction that the roach would travel if it were on your kitchen floor. A tiny velcro patch and harness keep the cockroach in place.

Hertz says he uses individual lights that flash when the roach approaches a wall. Most roaches avoid light and would, hopefully, avoid the wall, but that is not always the case.

OLBERMANN: So what do car-driving cockroaches have to do with robots?

GARNET HERTZ, RESEARCHER: Well, initially, I became interested in working with cockroaches as a result of the ability for cockroaches to be able to move really well through terrain, and to combine that with a system where the natural ability for these insects to move is put into a robotic system where the insect could navigate the machine around, as opposed to a computer controlling the system.

OLBERMANN: So you're trying to get some of the biological elements into a robot system. Do you make the roaches drive the car, or are they doing it willingly somehow?

HERTZ: Well, I haven't perfected my ability to speak cockroach yet, so I'm not quite sure exactly what they're saying to me. But they do hiss if they're upset, and the cockroaches don't hiss when they're in the robot, so I think it's all good.

OLBERMANN: Well, now, to this point, The New York Times Science Tuesday section, which is one of the great reads in America, wrote your story up this week, your story on the cockroaches, obviously. And there was one line in there in the account which fascinated me. Let me just read this. "Sometimes a roach appears perfectly happy to sit motionless on the ball for minutes at a time. Some roaches ignore the lights"-- the lights being used to sort of guide them around while they're driving this car --"and once in awhile, some of them, Mr. Hertz believes, seem to enjoy bumping the cart into walls."

What do you mean they enjoy bumping the cart into walls?

HERTZ: Well, the robot is oriented and built on the premise that cockroaches don't like light. In other words, in order for the system to avoid running into objects, there is an array of lights that shines lights in the cockroach's face as it's approaching an obstacle. Now, cockroaches don't always -- or I've discovered that cockroaches don't always avoid the light. Some do and some don't. And it's -- it does vary from insect to insect. So it's interesting putting the insects in and seeing what they're doing, and they really do have different behaviors between the individual insects.

OLBERMANN: And just like a 3-year-old kid on a tricycle, they might actually enjoy bumping the thing into the wall? Do you have any -- is that just a hunch, or do you have empirical evidence of this?

HERTZ: I don't know if enjoying is the exact proper term, but they you know, it's tough to say. You know, these insects -- some are very afraid of the light and some aren't. And it's actually quite difficult to design this system because, essentially, I'm trying to build an immersive environment for these insects to fall into and to be able to navigate this robot accurately. And so far, there's not a lot of information on how to build a virtual reality system for an insect like that.

OLBERMANN: You can see it, can't you? One roach will find out about this, then he tells the others. Soon they'll all be driving cars around your kitchen.

Garnet Hertz, 2005 -