Remote control animal
A remote control animal is an animal which is controlled by the use of radio signals. It can be considered to be a cyborg as it combines electronic devices with an organic life form. Electrodes have to be implanted in the animal's nervous system and it has to carry a receiver, typically on its back. The electrodes do not move the animal directly, as one would move a robot; instead, they are used to signal its desired direction or action, then stimulate the animal's reward centres if it complies. The animals can then become directed and used as working animals for search and rescue operations or various other uses. Because of the surgery required, and the moral and ethical issues involved, there has been criticism aimed at the use of remote control animals, especially regarding animal welfare and animal rights.
The remote control of rats usually involves the insertion of wires into the animal's nervous system. In 2002, a team of scientists at the State University of New York controlled rats by the use of three wires pushed into their brain. Two of the wires stimulate whiskers vibrissae on the left or right side, while the third is used to give a rewarding electrical stimulus to the brain when the rat makes the correct move to the left or right. Signals from a laptop allowed a human operator to control the rat from up to 500 yards (460 m) away.
In 2009, remote control of the flight movements of the Cotinus texana and the much larger Mecynorrhina torquata beetles has been achieved during experiments funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The weight of the electronics and battery meant that only Mecynorrhina was strong enough to fly freely under radio control. A specific series of pulses sent to the optic lobes of the insect encouraged it to take flight. The average length of flights was just 45 seconds, although one lasted for more than 30 minutes. A single pulse caused the beetle to land again. Stimulation of basalar flight muscles allowed the controller to direct the insect left or right, although this was successful on only 75% of stimulations. After each manoeuvre, the beetles quickly righted themselves and continued flying parallel to the ground. It has been suggested the beetles could be used for surveillance work, however, it has been noted that currently available batteries, solar cells and piezoelectrics that harvest energy from movement cannot provide enough power to run the electrodes and radio transmitters for very long.
In November 2013, the US-based company Backyard Brains released for sale to the public what they called the "Roboroach", an "electronic backpack" that could be attached to cockroaches to control their movements. The operator is required to amputate the cockroach's [[Antennae (biology)|antennae], use sandpaper to wear down the shell, insert a wire into the thorax, then glue the electrodes and circuit board onto the insect's back. A mobile phone app can then be used to control it via Bluetooth. The use of such a device may be a teaching aid that can promote interest in science. The makers of the "Roboroach" have been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and state that the device is intended to encourage children to become interested in neuroscience.
The public availability of the Roboroach received significant criticism, with opponents of the device saying that it promotes invasive operations on living creatures by amateurs. Several animal welfare organisations including the RSPCA have expressed concerns about the ethics and welfare of animals in this project; " 'The RSPCA believes it is inappropriate to encourage children to dismantle and deconstruct insects' said a spokesperson". PETA have filed a complaint with Michigan’s attorney general and state regulators, charging that Backyard Brains is practicing veterinary medicine without a license, which is a felony. Jared Goodman, the organisation's attorney, explains "It's not okay to torture and mutilate cockroaches. There is no way a child is going to learn anything about neurological diseases or be interested in studying it in the future based on mutilating a cockroach."
It has been argued that the sensation given to the animal is usually suggestive and the creature's natural instincts can stop it from performing some directives. The animal retains its free will and will naturally avoid potentially harmful situations or difficult obstacles.
Uses and justification
Remote-controlled animals are considered to have several potential uses, replacing the need for humans in some dangerous situations. Their application is further widened if they are equipped with additional electronic devices. Small creatures fitted with cameras and other sensors have been proposed as being useful when searching for survivors after a building has collapsed, with cockroaches or rats being small and manoeuvrable enough to go under rubble.
There have been a number of suggested military uses of remote controlled animals, particularly in the area of surveillance. Remote-controlled dogfish sharks have been likened to the studies into the use of military dolphins. It has also been proposed that remote-controlled rats could be used for the clearing of land mines. Other suggested fields of application include pest control, the mapping of underground areas, and the study of animal behaviour.
Development of robots that are capable of performing the same actions as controlled animals is often technologically difficult and cost-prohibitive. Flight is very difficult to replicate while having an acceptable payload and flight duration. Harnessing insects and using their natural flying ability gives significant improvements in performance. The availability of "inexpensive, organic substitutes" therefore allows for the development of small, controllable robots that are otherwise currently unavailable.
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