Mapping Out The Unknown With Cyborg Bug Swarms

Enid Burns for – Your Universe Online

Researchers at North Carolina State University are looking to bugs, namely cockroaches, to help them with a mapping problem. The researchers are looking to map tricky spaces, such as collapsed buildings, by letting a swarm of cyber cockroaches, dubbed biobots, explore such areas.

NCSU published a paper — “Topological Mapping of Unknown Environments using an Unlocalized Robotic Swarm” — of the research being conducted by Dr. Edgar Lobaton, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and senior author of the paper.

“We focused on how to map areas where you have little or no precise information on where each biobot is, such as a collapsed building where you can’t use GPS technology,” said Lobaton in a statement.

“One characteristic of biobots is that their movement can be somewhat random,” Lobaton added. “We’re exploiting that random movement to work in our favor.”

Field work in such an experiment involves releasing a swarm of biobots, such as remotely controlled cockroaches, which is the topic of research at the same university conducted by Dr. Alper Bozkurt. The biobots are equipped with electronic sensors, and are initially allowed to roam at random. This is because the researchers can’t use GPS to track their movement at first. Precise locations are initially unknown. As the biobots come into range of one another, radio waves signal the researchers to provide a location.

After an initial roaming period, researchers send a signal commanding the biobots to keep moving until they find a wall or other unbroken surface, and then continue moving along the wall. Researchers call this command “wall following,” as the biobots walk along a wall to establish mapping geographies.

Researchers repeat this cycle a few times before commanding the biobots to explore at random, followed again by the wall following command in order to get a picture of the area they are trying to map. The data are collected by new software that uses an algorithm to translate the biobot sensor data into a rough map of the unknown environment.

“This would give first responders a good idea of the layout in a previously unmapped area,” Lobaton said.

The bio sensors can be equipped with more than just geographical sensors, but also sensors that detect hazardous materials such as radioactive or chemical threats, in order to map areas that are contaminated and require special equipment to explore, or areas to avoid altogether.

The research paper will be presented at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, held the first week of November in Tokyo, Japan. The research was supported by a National Science Foundation Grant and the lead author of the paper is Alireza Dirafzoon, a PhD student at NC State University.

Researchers have conducted simulations to test the software and are currently testing the program with robots. Hopefully the researchers will include a “pied piper” command that will bring all of the biobots back into containment after completing their mapping task, lest a collapsed building develop a biobot infestation problem.