Ben Epstein's Wi-Fi Roaches

A bug’s life in the trenches
Photograph by Darin Mickey for Bloomberg Businessweek

When Ben Epstein sees a cockroach, he’s more likely to get out a circuit board than a can of Raid. Epstein, 57, is a vice president at OpCoast, a defense contractor in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. For the last few years he’s been using insects—specifically, the death’s head cockroach, a two-inch-long, glossy brown branch of the species—to create wireless networks. The goal is to use the insects to communicate with people trapped in collapsed buildings, mines, and other areas rescuers can’t easily reach. The insects might also conduct surveillance. “These are real bugs that can do bugging,” Epstein says, laughing.

On its belly, each roach carries a dime-size circuit board along with a radio, a microphone, and a battery. The gear, which adds up to two grams, about half the weight of a roach, is still in the prototype phase. As the bugs crawl into crevices and disperse, their microphones pick up sounds, while the radios transmit data via a local-area wireless technology called ZigBee. In the future, the bugs might carry sensors to detect radioactivity or chemicals.

Epstein and his team are working to make the electronic circuitry even tinier, so it can be carried by smaller insects such as crickets and water bugs. They’re also testing a metal composite that flexes like a muscle when electricity is applied. Placing the material on a cricket would alter the flutter of its wings and distort the pitch of its chirp. It’s a way to relay information as aural zeroes and ones, like the bits in a computer, which could be decoded by software. “It has the potential for being a redundant communication system at a low cost,” says Dwight Woolard, a program manager at the Army Research Office.

Epstein came up with the idea of using insects to form wireless networks while listening to swarms of cicadas in Shanghai, where his wife is from. Submitting a funding proposal “was like writing a science fiction novel,” Epstein says, but resulted in $850,000 from the U.S. Army. “Ben is extremely creative,” says Hong Liang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University, one of Epstein’s partners on the project.

Epstein has tinkered with electronics since he was a kid in Cherry Hill, N.J. “My bedroom looked like a TV repair shop,” he says. “Everybody was giving me their old junk.” After studying electrical engineering at the University of Rochester, he earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982. He then spent a year doing research in France, where he indulged his passion for pipe organ music. “I lived in Paris and had the schedule of all the masses,” Epstein says. “I tried to get three in on a Sunday.”

He worked as a researcher at RCA, then led business development for France Télécom in the U.S. About a decade ago he landed at OpCoast, where he now works on technologies that help the military jam radios. About half of his time is devoted to insects—for whom he’s developed an unusual appreciation. “I always thought roaches were icky,” Epstein says, “but these are actually cute.”

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