Search and rescue dogs, while wonderful, have their limitations – namely, the inability to fit into tiny spaces. A team of researchers has come up with a solution in the form of cyborg cockroaches equipped with high-tech backpacks.

The cyborg cockroaches, or biobots, are the brainchild of researchers at North Carolina State University. The quarter-sized pack placed onto the back of a cockroach is equipped with microphones to pick up high-resolution sound. One version of the pack has one microphone to pick up sound from any direction, which is wirelessly transmitted. A second version of the pack has an arrangement of three-directional microphones to identify the direction of a sound.

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These biobots are meant to be deployed in disaster areas as helpers for first responders searching for victims buried underneath rubble, for instance.

“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 Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and senior author of two papers on this development. “Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero in on where those sounds are coming from.”

The researchers have also developed an “invisible fence” technology, which keeps cyborg cockroaches within a defined radius. Keeping biobots within a disaster area and close to each other allows them to act as nodes of a mobile wireless network. This technology can also be used to steer the cockroaches to places with sunlight so their backpacks can be recharged.