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Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation 

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By Austin Wright 

The creature that’s expected to inherit the Earth following a nuclear holocaust might also be well suited to help prevent man’s atomic self-destruction.

Researchers at Texas A&M University’s Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute have attached radiation sensors to the backs of cockroaches. They hope public-safety officials will one day send the souped-up insects into situations that are too risky for humans.

“Cockroaches really are the perfect medium for this,” says William Charlton, an associate professor of nuclear engineering at the university and a principal investigator on the project. “They can go for extraordinarily long periods of time without food. They exist on every continent except Antarctica. They’re very radiation resistant, and they can carry extremely large amounts of weight compared to their body mass.”

He envisions teams of about 20 remotely-controlled roaches — each carrying one of three types of sensors meant to detect different nuclear materials — that would march through areas of up to a square kilometer and send their readings back to an operator via a tiny, low-energy communications system. This would help officials determine if potentially contaminated areas — such as buildings where they suspect terrorists have planted a dirty bomb — are safe for humans.

The operator will be able to manipulate the insects’ forward and directional movements — cockroaches can’t crawl backward — using devices that apply pressure to parts of their antennas and stimulate their leg muscles. “It’s like a cattle prod for cockroaches,” Charlton says.

Five faculty members and about six graduate students at the institute are working on the project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. They’re now designing sensors and communications systems that are small enough to fit on a roach’s back, and both devices will use low-energy circuits that could also be installed in cell phones and hand-held computers.

The team originally planned to build bug-like robots, but they soon found that the motor functions consumed too much power. “A biological platform doesn’t take any power to move,” Charlton says. “That really was the breakthrough in the program.”

Cockroaches can run tirelessly for 35 minutes, according to a university document describing the system. And the resilient insect can carry a 3-gram load for months.
Reader Comments

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

I know that they have done experiments with radiation and cockroches. They have put them in machines and atomic tests that treat cancer patients and exposed them to high doses of radiation.But insects turned out to be much more radiation resistant. Wood-boring insects and their eggs were able to survive doses of 48,000 to 68,000 rads with no apparent ill effect. In 1959, Drs. Wharton and Wharton found that it took 64,000 rads to kill the fruit fly, and a colossal 180,000 rads to be sure of killing the parasitoid wasp, Habrobracon Actually they are quite wimps. Other insects seem to breed while the cockroaches die.
At the moment, the real King of Radiation is a foul-smellingreddish bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans, or Conan the Bacterium by its admiring researchers.

Johnny Sean on 07/19/2011 at 14:36

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

This could be a good way to have a better use for these pesky little insects! Maybe the researchers of these projects can also use other bugs like termites or moths to be used as a tester for radiation. It would be a good dissertation topic!

Emily Fields on 04/14/2011 at 05:16

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

Though I am not a fan of cockroaches in any way (trust me, I abhor these filthy, crawling insects!), I am just concerned if humans are not violating any forms of their animal rights. I mean, does this experiment harm the population of these roaches? Yes there might be several reseearch papers claiming that these little creatures can be radiation-proof, but do the gadgets installed in their tiny backs hurt them? Just a though.

Hanna Benson on 04/13/2011 at 05:54

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

ya, its a great eco friendly idea, bcoz if a war is declared nuclear weapons is a must, so to protect ourself,instead a backpack,we can even use it to cover our whole body..... AND also a WARNING to cockroaches,, BEWARE OF FASHION DESIGNERS,they may tak u to prepare RADIATION RESISTANT DRESSES........

INIGO on 03/13/2010 at 02:05

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

Look at that poor soldier -- we have to lighten his load!!!

John Frim on 03/08/2010 at 08:59

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

Great concept, but won't it make PETA people disrobe and make some bizarre protest?

Marauder on 03/01/2010 at 22:18

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

Great article. Just one comment....stick a fast-food joint on Antarctica and you'll soon see your missing cockroaches!

Michael Eiermann on 03/01/2010 at 08:13

Re: Backpack-Wearing Cockroaches to Detect Radiation

Anyone who has lived in an apartment infested with cockroaches knows how durable these insects can be.

This is a brilliant idea -- and I am not saying that simply because of any animosity I might harbor towards my own, tiny, swarming and uninvited former roomates.

Stacy Bird on 02/20/2010 at 08:16

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