for National Geographic News
Cockroaches will often choose shelter unwisely when under the influence of robots, a new study shows.
Usually when the creepy crawlers are let loose in a brightly lit area, they gather under the darkest shade they can find.
"Nice means dark, for a cockroach," said lead study author Jose Halloy, a social ecologist at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. "They look for shadows."
But when the bugs were joined by tiny robots designed to smell and behave like roaches, the machines were able to control the insects' behavior.
If the robots lingered beneath a less desirable, more brightly lit shelter, for example, the cockroaches did too—a choice they rarely made when the robots weren't around.
The findings show that such robots can influence group behavior in animals, the authors report in this week's issue of the journal Science.
This means that the tiny machines could be valuable tools in helping to understand how animals that move in swarms make collective decisions.
Scent of a Cockroach
The robots used for the experiment were about the same size as cockroaches, but they looked more like toy cars than insects.
Although cockroaches perceive light levels well, they don't recognize each other by sight, Halloy said. Instead, they rely on smell.
So Halloy and his colleagues dressed the little robots with cockroach-scented paper.
The team then programmed the robots to behave according to a simple set of rules derived from watching groups of cockroaches crawling around a test arena.
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