Cockroach Cyborgs

  • By Anna Rothschild
  • Posted 10.17.13
  • NOVA

With just a few simple tools, anyone can turn a cockroach into a tiny controllable 'bugborg.' Why would you want to? It turns out that these nasty pests could turn into life savers in the future.

Running Time: 02:26


Cockroach Cyborgs

Posted: October 17, 2013

Hi, I'm Anna, and this is my friend Roachelle. And today we’re going to tell you how to turn roaches into cyborgs. It might sound evil, but it’s actually for a good cause.

It’s true. Scientist have discovered that they can control a roach’s navigation by sending signals to the roach’s brain through their antennae.

Here’s how it works. Cockroaches use their antennae to explore the world around them. Their antennae have nerves running through them that sends electrical signals to the roach’s brain. If the roach feels a wall or another object with its right antenna, it’s brain will tell it to go to the left. This is just part of the cockroach’s natural escape mechanism. 

But scientists figured out that they could take control of this system. They cropped the roach’s antennae and inserted wires through them. The wires were attached to a tiny cockroach backpack, weighing about half as much as the insect, and carrying a three-volt battery and a computer chip. By sending a small electrical signals to either the left or right antenna, the cockroach could be ordered about like a tiny remote-controlled car. 

To be clear, these electrical signals just stimulate the neurons—they’re not actually shocking the bug. And, the backpack is removable, so even though the bugs did get their antennae cropped, they’re otherwise able to live their lives as they usually would.

So, why are people doing this? Well, it turns out that these tiny pests could turn into life- savers in the future. We might send them out into places unsafe for humans, to gauge radiation levels, or to look for survivors after natural disasters.

And this work isn’t even just for scientists. RoboRoach is a recently funded Kickstarter project, which promises to bring the experience to the masses by giving high school classrooms the accessories to turn any roach into a bugborg. They hope to inspire kids to learn about neurotechnology, since doctors use similar technology in the treatments of Parkinson’s disease and deafness.

So next time you see a cockroach just think. That roach might be helping to educate and save a life.

Don’t worry Roachelle. I’ll never do that to you.




Anna Rothschild
Alison Bruzek and Anna Rothschild
Alison Bruzek
Production Help
Jacqueline Mason
Original Footage
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2013


(Close up of Antenna )
© Dale M. Norris
"Perception of Behavioral Chemicals" 1981, Biomedical Press, Elsevier, Amsterdam
(Roach with Backpack)
© Alper Bozkurt
(Roach Biobot Video)
© Alper Bozkurt
(RoboRoach Demo Videos)
© Backyard Brains
(entryway and hallway new tile)
© Flickr/anneheathen
(cockroach – reddish brown 2)
© Flickr/Wahiawaboy


(main image: cockroach)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2013

Related Links