It's dark in here — the way they like it. If you're quiet, you can hear them squirming, chewing. They sound almost like children sucking lollipops.
Liang's colleague, Professor S. Bradley Vinson, reaches into a plastic container where roaches are hiding between wood chips, searching for one with his bare hand.
"There's one nice cockroach," he says. "See how pretty."
It's huge: 2 inches long, an inch wide, with a hard black and gold shell. Bradley turns it upside down and its six legs kick around, the hairy, prickly spines searching for something to clasp onto.
"They don't bite," Liang says reassuringly.
This breed from Latin America is slower than the ones you might see crawling under your refrigerator, but also much stronger.
"This is probably one of the larger roaches — and could pick up, you know put a heavier pack on it," Vinson says. "And it would be the ideal starting point for all this."
A "pack" as in a backpack.
Vinson is an entomologist — an insect expert. Liang is a mechanical engineer. The point of their work is to build the perfect cockroach cyborg: an animal that can crawl into tiny holes and around jagged edges with recording equipment, for surveillance, for example. Or, if there's an earthquake and a building crashes, Liang says, deploy them to the second floor for search and rescue, "so when they reach there, they can work as a vehicle. If they can carry any sensors, cameras, they can collect information for us."
Her team recently had a breakthrough, which they describe in a paper for the Royal Society.
Since at least the 1990s, scientists around the world have been trying to control the movement of roaches by planting electrodes into their antennae and sending little shocks. These shocks serve to make them think a predator is coming from the left, and so prompt them to go right.
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