UTC IASE faculty member, Dr. Abhishek Dutta, was recently highlighted by the university, in recognition of his work on biological control systems and bio-robotics. Dr. Dutta, who is an assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is using his specialization in control systems, design and optimization and cybernetics, to build a hardwired biological insect that can be used to precisely control the insect’s motion. Since then, the “UConn neuro controller” has been trending in hundreds of news outlets worldwide engaging as many discussions on social media.
The microcircuit is strapped to the roach, and then interfaces with wired micro-electrodes that connect into the antenna lobes. The signal is transmitted through a wireless device in the circuit and a receiver allows for the motion to be controlled through a ground station. The microcircuit sends tiny electrical currents through the wires into the neural tissue in the antenna lobe. Once the brain receives these impulses, it makes the insect believe that there is an obstacle away. Therefore, if an appropriate signal is received by the left antenna lobe, the insect will move to the right and vice-versa.
Professor Dutta is using the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach as the organism under study, where he has built a microcircuit that wires directly into the brain of the roach and uses the circuit as a neuro controller. The circuit incorporates a 9-axis inertial measurement unit that can detect the roach’s six degrees of free motion, its linear and rotational acceleration, as well as its compass heading. Other features that help with the performance of the circuit is a sensor to detect the ambient surrounding temperature, which will help map the correlation between the environmental conditions and the motion of the roach.
Although a couple of similar systems have been developed previously, this microcircuit stands out because it offers a multi-faceted approach for stimulating the nerve tissue, real-time feedback of the insect’s response to the electrical stimuli, and a greater degree of control of the insect’s motion, resulting in a more informed and precise control system. As the microcontroller and built-in potentiometer work in tandem, the operator is able to vary the output voltage, frequency, and cycle of stimuli delivered, which helps to produce a more robust response, while not causing damage to the roach.
This work shows great promise, with the possibility of human applications in the future. Microcircuit and micro-control systems, such as these, are the first step in developing larger-scale controllers and circuits that can be used in industries like healthcare, automotive, and artificial intelligence. One proposed use is to use this technology to help control motor functions in organisms with spinal cord injury or paraplegic organisms. “Our microcircuit provides a sophisticated system for acquiring real-time data on an insect’s heading and acceleration, which allows us to extrapolate its trajectory,” says Dr. Dutta. “We believe this advanced closed loop, model-based system provides better control for precision maneuvering and overcomes some of the technical limitations currently plaguing today’s micro robots”. Dr. Dutta states that much more research is needed, although the current technology has great promise to lead to a new generation of products with even larger scale applications.