Taking a cue from technology that looks to biological systems for inspiration, Garnet 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.

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