While most people are concerned with exterminating any roaches inhabiting their homes, artist Garnet Hertz ensures they can zip around in style.
Taking a cue from technology that looks to biological systems for inspiration, Hertz has constructed a three-wheeled robotic vehicle that lets a Madagascan hissing cockroach navigate a room while perched atop a ping-pong ball.
The ball works like a computer mouse's track ball. Where the roach moves on the ball, the vehicle moves in the room.
Sensors on the bot can tell when it's going to hit something. It also has a semi-circle of LED lights facing the roach, so when it's about to hit an obstacle an LED will shine on the creature from the direction of the barrier, hopefully causing it to run in the other direction.
Unfortunately for Hertz, this isn't always the case. The light deterrent works well sometimes, other times it doesn't. Sometimes the roach will sit still for five minutes without moving, start running in circles, then stop again. Or it might navigate around obstacles and then suddenly bang into a wall.
"You're working with an unpredictable thing," Hertz said. "But that element of it is an interesting part of the whole project."
Hertz, 31, is a Canadian Fulbright scholar who is about to start a Ph.D. program in the Visual Studies Department at University of California at Irvine. He began the first version of this creation, dubbed Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot #1, in January 2004 as a project for his Master's degree program in the Arts, Computation and Engineering program at the same school.
The original goal was to build something that used an insect and operated better than a microprocessor. Unfortunately, this wasn't the outcome. Roaches aren't the most predictable bugs. But he's happy with the results.
"I think it's produced a system that's more interesting than a computer," he said. "It depends on what you use to measure it."
Hertz rotates 15 giant Madagascan cockroaches in and out of the driver's seat of the vehicle. Instead of brains, the roaches have ganglia: clumps of nerve cells on various parts of their bodies. Their relatively large size make them easier to work with than other types of roaches, and their tendency to hiss when they are upset lets him know if it's time to give one a break from playing Dale Earnhardt. They have a life span of about three years, so he has plenty of chances to let them drive.
The roaches are held in place on top of the ping-pong ball by a small piece of Velcro adhered permanently to their backs, but Hertz said he does this in a way that doesn't disrupt their range of movement.
His experiments have led him to believe roaches are sensitive to vibrations -- like footsteps from a person walking into a room -- and, perhaps, wind. He may incorporate these ideas into the bot in the future, he said.
Hertz is now finishing up a newer model, named Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot #2. The new one will be unveiled this July at the annual ArtBots Robot Talent Show in Dublin, Ireland. They're basically the same, he said, but the new one can move backward, doesn't "blow up as much," has more lights and sensors and is easier to pack for shipping.
Douglas Repetto, director of ArtBots and director of research at Columbia University's Computer Music Center, said part of robotics has always been about amplifying ability -- usually human ability.
This project, however, gives roaches skills they normally wouldn't have, which brings up all sorts of questions, including many about responsibility and consciousness, he said.
""It was kind of a no-brainer that (Hertz's bot) would be a piece we would include because it sort of touched on a lot of my interests -- the robotic part, the biology part, the questions it raises," Repetto said. "His, right away, was one of the pieces we liked the most."
People seem to really enjoy wondering what the roach is thinking, Hertz said, and that's fine with him.
"I don't think I'm necessarily trying to prove a hard scientific fact with this. I'm OK with raising some questions and dialogue and so forth," he said