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Student develops cockroach-powered car

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 31 - May 22, 1997

Neural Control: Getting an American Cockroach to Drive a Car is an idea originated not by an animal researcher out to prove the intelligence of insects, but by a Virginia Tech electrical-engineering senior who wants someday to help provide increased mobility for the severely handicapped.

It is an idea that propelled Steven Bathiche to tie for first place in the undergraduate paper category at the university's 1997 Graduate Research Symposium on April 29.

"The connection of the living to the non-living--the interface between humans and machines--has been a recurring theme in the works of futurists...," Bathiche writes in his project abstract. "The merging of the tools of engineering with the principles of biology may bring these fictions to a reality."

When Bathiche came up with the idea of testing the ability of muscle action to control the motion of a vehicle, he decided to use insect muscle. "I wanted insects for this research because they are built simply compared to mammals," he said. So he asked Jeff Bloomquist, an associate professor of entomology, to help.

"Steve came to me and asked if it was possible to use an insect as the control for an electric car," Bloomquist said. "One of my areas of research is insect neurophysiology. He designed the circuit board and I helped connect the board to the cockroach." They chose the American cockroach for its robustness and large size.

Bathiche and Bloomquist tethered a cockroach to a boom extending from the front of a toy remote-controlled car. They attached a thin-wire recording electrode to the insect's thoracic flight muscles. When the cockroach moves its muscles in an attempt to fly, the electrode delivers an electrical signal to an amplifier and filter. The signal is fed to a Motorola microcontroller, which measures the signal and drives the motor of the car forward via an electronic speed control.

So far, the cockroach's flight muscles only signal the car to move forward. The next step, Bathiche says, is to attempt to use the muscles involved in turning to signal the car to move left or right, and he will stay in Blacksburg for another month or so to work on this. He and Bloomquist also are making a video of the project.

"The exciting thing is that the concept actually works and it has some potential real-world applications," says Bloomquist. "Steve's interest is in interfacing handicapped people and intelligent wheelchairs. This is a first step toward that."

Bathiche, who graduated from Tech May 10, is going to the University of Washington to work on a Ph.D. in bio-engineering. "I want to conduct similar research there," he says. "Applications from this research could include electric wheelchairs that can be controlled by severely handicapped people. Beyond that, I can imagine humans and computers interfacing, based on the same principles we've applied to the cockroach and the electric car."