Innovations: Why Is Moscow Developing an Army of Automated Insects?

Russian designers have created a robotic roach to aid in search-and-rescue operations — and, yes, espionage.


If it looks like a cockroach and moves like a cockroach, it actually might be a Russian robot.

Designed by researchers at Kaliningrad’s Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University is a special autonomous bot that has the size, speed, and other behavioral characteristics of an actual roach. Measuring 4 inches long, the bot uses a small array of light sensors and probes, both contact and noncontact, to avoid obstacles and zip around at about 1 foot per second — without remote control — for up to 20 minutes.

Intended for search-and-rescue operations, such as locating survivors in a collapsed building, it also has another, more sinister purpose: espionage. The robot can carry up to 10 grams, which is more than enough for a small camera.

Cockroach-like robots are not exactly a novel idea. Other lookalikes have been built for similar purposes and applications, but they always had flaws: too fast, too robotic. The new roach bot, however, seems to be the first that’s almost indistinguishable from an actual cockroach (specifically the species Blaberus craniifer, aka death’s head).

So next time you see a roach running around your kitchen, remember to smile for the camera.

This Bioelectronic Nose Knows

In the developing world, nearly 80 percent of infectious diseases are linked to water contamination. Testing for impurities, though, requires time-intensive and costly laboratory analysis. Now Seoul National University researchers have created a bioelectronic nose — a roughly 7-by-15-millimeter flat piece of plastic fitted with organic, lab-grown olfactory receptors — that can sniff out dangerous water-borne bacteria. The results are as accurate as conventional techniques, but they’re gathered faster (contaminants are detected within minutes) and the device is reusable.

So far, the device only detects two types of molecules — geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol, which produce earthy and musty aromas, respectively — but the researchers are optimistic they can eventually include all the 400-plus olfactory receptors found in the human nose. Such a snout could also find illicit drugs and explosives or help create better foods and perfumes.

The Route Less Traveled

It’s no Secret that privacy is under attack. Criminal hackers want to steal identities, companies want to sell individuals’ data, and governments want to know exactly who is talking to whom. In fact, Reporters Without Borders lists 19 countries as “enemies of the Internet” — Syria, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, and China, to name a few — dubbed as such for practicing pervasive surveillance and censorship. But even in the United States, tech firms have been fighting government demands for backdoor encryption keys, which would provide user data and jeopardize user privacy. It seems one thing is the same no matter where ordinary citizens are: They lack protection.

When a person sends data over the Internet — for example, when accessing a website’s content or when sending an email — the data, in order to move quickly, are broken into smaller data “packets,” which don’t necessarily travel together. Not only do users have little to no control over how these packets go from one place to another, but they have no control over which countries the network will route them through. Even if the sender and recipient are in the same country, packets could be routed through another nation if the users’ network determines that’s faster. Thus, if the packets cross through an “enemy” country, private information could be intercepted and even modified.

But Alibi Routing — software from University of Maryland computer scientists that enables users’ data to circumvent untrusted countries — is set to change the way the Internet, as we know it, works (or, rather, how a user can manipulate it). Likely to become available as a web browser plug-in before the end of the year, the system empowers its subscribers to decide how their information travels.

The overlay of this peer-to-peer network bypasses undesired countries and avoids unsecure networks. Alibi Routing sends users detailed receipts (which include GPS coordinates and time stamps) that verify that packets, before reaching their final destinations, came nowhere near forbidden locations. If Alibi can’t provide conclusive evidence, users are warned that data could have been compromised.

So rest assured: In the not-so-distant future, people everywhere will be able to bank online, send personal documents, and watch endless cat videos in complete privacy. Just as (the Internet) god intended.

Swallowing Sensors

From smartwatches to Fitbits to sleep trackers, wearable tech has revolutionized how people understand their fitness. But that gear is only good at measuring biometrics expressed on the body’s surface. Under the skin is an entirely untapped realm of personal health data waiting to be explored.

In September, a research team at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University showed off a tool that could glimpse that internal world: a silicon-based sensor, just a few millimeters long and wide, that’s encapsulated. That’s right — you actually swallow the thing. Made of biodegradable hydrogel, which ultimately dissolves in a person’s digestive system, the device is powered by intestinal fluid. It uses stomach acid as a medium for electrical current for the device’s battery. Lab tests have shown this method to provide 5 milliwatts of power for nearly 20 hours. Through an antenna, the capsule transmits data back to computerized collection instruments outside the body.

The sensor can monitor how well the body breaks down and absorbs medication. But it also could study differences in patients’ gut bacteria — furthering a recent push in the medical community to understand these microbiomes, which researchers think could shed light on people’s moods, mental health, and illnesses. Bottoms up.

Illustration by Brown Bird Design

Neel V. Patel is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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