It’s a Wednesday morning in May in a lab at Texas A&M University, and Ben Epstein ’78 is filming as a technician removes a two-inch long cockroach from a plastic box, rubs it with a cotton cloth, and dabs a splotch of adhesive on its back.
Next, the technician presses a small circuit board to the adhesive, connecting a tiny radio, microphone, and battery. The whole package fits on the roach like a backpack, and in a few minutes, the roach and several others like it will be released onto the cement floor of a large shed, where they will scurry away like grade schoolers dashing to the bus stop.
It’s all part of the field test for the OrthopterNets program, a project of OpCoast, a two-person New Jersey tech company specializing in networking and wireless systems. Epstein and the company’s other half, David Rhodes, are both electrical engineers with doctorates, a long line of published articles, and about three decades of experience in the field.
“If you have enough insects with these radios, they can form what’s called an ad-hoc radio communications network,” Epstein says, explaining the OrthopterNets project. The release of hundreds of outfitted cockroaches could form a network allowing search officers, stationed at receivers, to communicate with people trapped in mines, buildings, or caves. The project could make this particular species of cockroach—the supersized death’s head cockroach, which likes nothing more than to wander in dark spaces—an unwitting search and rescue hero.
OrthopterNets is funded by the Defense Department’s Army Research Office. The Defense Department has funded research that’s had significant commercial applications, and Epstein hopes that OrthopterNets is no exception. He predicts, however, that it will draw interest mostly from public and private entities that carry out search and rescue missions.
“I don’t see people buying these things on Amazon,” he jokes.
That said, the death’s head cockroach is, in fact, a bargain. The low-tech facilitator of high-tech operations comes at a pittance. “It barely even appears in our budget,” says Epstein of the cost of the roaches, which he obtains from a local supplier. Not even the circuitry itself is expensive, he adds. For commercial users, “most of the cost would be in mounting the circuits—the manual labor involved.”
The project is in the prototype phase and Epstein estimates that it will take another year to make OrthopterNets operational. Part of the challenge is making the equipment as small, light, and powerful as possible. On the one hand, the death’s head cockroach is a hearty creature. During the May field experiment, roaches were carrying two grams of equipment—about half their total weight. And, Epstein noted,
“They don’t seem to mind.”
Nonetheless, about four minutes into the field experiment, at least one of the roaches slowed considerably, as first the battery, and then the circuit board, slipped from its back. “Batteries are the biggest limitation,” says Epstein, who says that’s why the team is focused on developing the circuit board to consume less power.
The OrthopterNets project is one of many that the Defense Department has sponsored that harness “cyborgs”—short for cybernetic organisms—for military purposes. Several years ago, the department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, funded a program called HI-MEMS, or Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems, to develop technology to control insect locomotion. Epstein attended a HI-MEMS briefing.
“I was very impressed with the work that I saw,” he recalls. Noting that HI-MEMS focused on insect movement, “I thought why not do something involving communication with insects?’”
He constructed a team of experts on everything from insects to integrated circuits. His partners—Hong Liang of Texas A&M’s mechanical engineering department along with Byunghoo Jung and Harry Diamond of Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering—describe Epstein as “highly creative.” “I’ve always enjoyed our collaborations with Ben,” adds Diamond, who worked with Epstein on the development of a digital array radar for the U.S. Army.
A tinkerer by nature, Epstein says his childhood bedroom in Cherry Hill, N.J., was littered with deconstructed gadgets. At Rochester, he had less time for informal experimentation. “To be quite honest,” he confesses, “I was just studying so much.”
There were exceptions. Just for fun, he helped a professor test the theory that flatworms, or plenarians, emitted electrical fields. If the fields could be manipulated, Epstein says, “you could make plenarians grow two heads.”
Alas. “We never got that far,” he concedes.