Scientists "Drive" Rats By Remote Control

Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
May 1, 2002

Next time you see a rat scurrying across the room, beware, it might not be as innocent as it seems. It could be a remotely operated robo-rat working for an intelligence agency.

Scientists have trained rats to respond to signals from a laptop-based command center up to 500 yards away, enabling a human operator to remotely guide the robo-rats through an obstacle course. Intelligent, nimble, and inexpensive, such guided animals could be used for spying or on dangerous search-and-rescue missions.

Remote-controlled animals could take the place of human workers in performing dangerous or difficult jobs such as locating survivors in collapsed buildings or clearing fields of hidden landmines, said Sanjiv K. Talwar of the State University of New York.

Other uses might include pest control, military surveillance, and mapping of underground areas, said Talwar, who led the team of neuroscientists that developed the application.

In recent years, robotics researchers have been developing purely mechanical machines that may someday be capable of handling such tasks, but the newly developed, electronics-toting robo-rats could be practical anywhere robots might be useful, Talwar said.

While robots need to be precisely programmed to correctly complete even the simplest task, he noted, rats are naturally capable of performing many actions that would be required of, for example, search-and-rescue machines.

"You give [rats] a command, and they have their own sort of native intelligence to carry it out," Talwar said.

Another benefit of using animals as platforms for robotics is that they provide inexpensive, organic substitutes for much of the hardware that machines with similar functions would require.

For the initial experiments, for example, the microprocessor, receiver, and antennae needed for each rat cost no more than U.S. $40, Talwar said. Adding video cameras and satellite navigation equipment would increase that basic cost, but would still add up to far less than the price tag on a robot with similar capabilities, he said.

Virtual Cues and Rewards

The navigation system of a robo-rat takes advantage of the rats neurological system, which is wired to learn appropriate responses to stimuli sent to it in the form of electrical impulses. By training the rats to respond in particular ways to particular stimuli, the researchers were able to effectively program the animal to act out remote commands.

The researchers first threaded three wires as narrow as human hairs into each rats brain and attached them to a microprocessor slung on the rats back like a backpack. Two wires served to deliver electrical cues—one each to the brain cells associated with the rats left and right whiskers, respectively. A third wire doled out rewards to a separate area of the brain.

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