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Bug Biobots: Drones and Insect Biobots to Map Disaster Areas

Nov 19, 2016 04:00 AM EST

Scientists from North Carolina State University have developed a combination of software and hardware that gives them the ability to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and insect cyborgs, or biobots, to map large, unfamiliar areas. One of the proposed uses is for gathering critical information about collapsed buildings after a disaster.

"The idea would be to release a swarm of sensor-equipped biobots, such as remotely controlled cockroaches, into a collapsed building or other dangerous, unmapped area," said Edgar Lobaton, a co-author of two studies detailing the technology and an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State. "Using remote-control technology, we would restrict the movement of the biobots to a defined area. That area would be defined by proximity to a beacon on a UAV. For example, the biobots may be prevented from going more than 20 meters from the UAV."

The biobots move around a defined area and signal researchers via radio waves when they get close to each other. Using an algorithm, custom software would then translate the biobot sensor data into a rough map of the unknown environment. When the program has enough data to map the defined area, the UAV moves to an unexplored section. The biobots move with it to repeat the mapping process until the entire region or structure has been mapped.

"This has utility for areas, like collapsed buildings, where GPS can't be used," Lobaton explained. "A strong radio signal from the UAV could penetrate to a certain extent into a collapsed building, keeping the biobot swarm contained. And as long as we can get a signal from any part of the swarm, we are able to retrieve data on what the rest of the swarm is doing. Based on our experimental data, we know you're going to lose track of a few individuals, but that shouldn't prevent you from collecting enough data for mapping."

Alper Bozkurt, co- lead author of the study and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, had previously developed functional cockroach biobots. But for their current project, the research team relied on inch-and-a-half-long robots that simulate cockroach behavior, releasing these robots into a maze-like space, with the effect of the UAV beacon emulated using an overhead camera and a physical boundary attached to a cart that moved as the robots mapped the area.

"We had previously developed proof-of-concept software that allowed us to map small areas with biobots, but this work allows us to map much larger areas and to stitch those maps together into a comprehensive overview," Lobaton concluded. "It would be of much more practical use for helping to locate survivors after a disaster, finding a safe way to reach survivors, or for helping responders determine how structurally safe a building may be. The next step is to replicate these experiments using biobots, which we're excited about."

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