You might think of bugs as pests, if you bother to think about them at all. Alper Bozkurt’s research will quickly set you straight: To him they’re engineering wonders, deft flying and crawling machines that reproduce in nature more reliably than widgets made in a factory.
Bozkurt’s interest isn’t just academic. By the time his work is through, in maybe 10 years, an army of cockroaches and moths just might save your life.
An electrical and computer engineer at North Carolina State University, Bozkurt is among the first of a kind: He tinkers with bugs. Much of the circuitry he works with already exists — networks of neurons, honed by years of evolution — and he augments this circuitry with his own small electronic devices.
He envisions a future in which “biobots” — bugs with wires that protrude from their bodies and connect to control devices and sensors — serve as rescue teams, listening for cries of help. But they could also be spies surreptitiously listening for secrets, or explorers charting the geology of remote caves. Wherever a bug can crawl, or fly, the biobots could, too.
In the face of such complexity, "we started to have the idea to collaborate with the organisms" instead of starting from scratch.
To make it all possible, these versatile bugs will carry “backpacks,” as Bozkurt describes their payloads. These allow him to control the bugs directly, as well as provide the insect’s remote surveillance capabilities, which depend on size. For flying critters — so far just moths — this could just mean routers that allow Wi-Fi signals to pass information and instructions between bugs and mission control. But larger, ground-based cockroaches could carry microphones, gas sensors or anything else a biobot army commander can dream up.
Together, the insects form a team that could transform not just search and spy missions, but the very definition of what it means to be a machine.
How to Hack a Moth
Many robots take cues from nature, from slithering snake-bots to skittering six-legged (and relatively giant) robo-roaches. But when it comes to micro-flight, mimicking nature is extra difficult.
A separate group at Harvard has worked for years to shrink complex flying mechanisms — a tiny antenna, nervous system, power source — down to a buglike bot as tall as a penny, called a RoboBee. Each individual component warrants scores of journal papers: how it works in nature, how to re-create it mechanically and which materials could shrink the electronics smaller than ever before. Although RoboBees successfully fly within their lab, their trajectories are pretty unstable; even a small imperfection in its minuscule wings can throw the tiny bot off balance.
In the face of such complexity, “we started to have the idea to collaborate with the organisms” instead of starting from scratch, says Bozkurt. As a student a decade ago, Bozkurt worked on microelectromechanical systems, the kinds of sensors that tell your smartphone which way is up and how fast it’s moving, for example. Moths, he noticed, are basically an aerodynamic collection of such sensors.