OpCoast's Wi-Fi cockroaches

Olga Kharif
03 Jul 2012

When Ben Epstein sees a cockroach, he’s more likely to get out a circuit board than a can of Raid.

Epstein is a vice president at OpCoast, a defense contractor in New Jersey. For the last few years he’s been using insects—specifically, the death’s head cockroach, a two-inch-long, glossy brown branch of the species—to create wireless networks.

The goal is to use the insects to communicate with people trapped in collapsed buildings, mines, and other areas rescuers can’t easily reach. The insects might also conduct surveillance. “These are real bugs that can do bugging,” Epstein says, laughing.

On its belly, each roach carries a dime-size circuit board along with a radio, a microphone, and a battery. The gear, which adds up to two grams, about half the weight of a roach, is still in the prototype phase. As the bugs crawl into crevices and disperse, their microphones pick up sounds, while the radios transmit data via a local-area wireless technology called ZigBee. In the future, the bugs might carry sensors to detect radioactivity or chemicals.

Epstein and his team are working to make the electronic circuitry even tinier, so it can be carried by smaller insects such as crickets and water bugs. They’re also testing a metal composite that flexes like a muscle when electricity is applied.

Placing the material on a cricket would alter the flutter of its wings and distort the pitch of its chirp. It’s a way to relay information as aural zeroes and ones, like the bits in a computer, which could be decoded by software. “It has the potential for being a redundant communication system at a low cost,” says Dwight Woolard, a program manager at the Army Research Office.

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