Cockroach zapper: Researchers turn to AI to solve pest problem

Details to build the AI-powered system are in the public domain.
Ameya Paleja
The German cockroach (Blattella germanica)
The German cockroach (Blattella germanica)


A researcher in the U.K. seems to have reached his wit's end with cockroaches and developed a turret-based laser system to tackle them. Or as The Vice sees it, used his machine learning and engineering skills to bring the dream of zapping bugs into reality.

Anyone who has witnessed a major cockroach infestation will swear that the job of an exterminator is not easy. Pests like cockroaches have the uncanny ability to hide in the remotest and unattended corners of the house to bounce back from near death again and again.

The dollars you count for an exterminator service are not just for the fumes and chemicals but also the expertise to target these remote locations. In the future, however, you could build at home a laser-based system that could specifically the cockroaches in the house.

How does the system work

Ildar Rakhmatulin is a research associate at the Heriot-Watt University in the U.K. but has spent his time zapping mosquitoes with lasers. So, the much larger cockroaches should have been relatively easy to dominate.

The researcher used a Jetson Nano, a small computer from NVIDIA that lets users try out different applications such as image classification, object detection, and speech processing to name a few, by running multiple neural networks.

Cockroach zapper: Researchers turn to AI to solve pest problem
The laser zapper system and how it works

Connected to the Nano were video feeds from two cameras as well as a galvanometer, a device that can measure electric current and could change the direction of the laser before it shoots at the target.

Instead of simply zapping the cockroaches, Rakhmatulin used his device at various power settings and found that at lower power levels of the laser, he could trigger the flight response in the roaches and prevent them from sheltering in a specific area. At higher power settings, the laser simply killed them.

In the public domain

Even though the concept has the potential to make Rakhmatulin a billionaire by licensing the technology across the globe, the researcher has put his know-how in the public domain for anybody to use.

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He admits that he has used cheap hardware and technology options, which means that the device can be assembled at home for less than $250. Nevertheless, he has put the resources on how to make and use the device on GitHub and people have started using it to tackle other pests such as hornets.

One could also argue that Rakhmatulin's approach works better than mechanical traps or chemicals used by exterminators since they are non-specific and can also damage the environment.

Nevertheless, Rakhmatulin warns that his method is far from perfect and needs much more work before it can be used reliably. For instance, a smaller laser would be much more effective in controlling cockroaches but is difficult to implement. Also, work is needed to be able to guide the laser to specifically target a part of the cockroach body, The Vice said in its report.

Moreover, the laser is a dangerous thing to have to flash around in the house. It is best avoided for now.

Details of the research were published in the journal Oriental Insects.


Controlling insect pests still relies on the extensive usage of generic and established methods, such as pesticides, which utilise broad spectrum chemicals or toxins persisting in the environment and targeting non-pest insect species. Therefore, more effective and environmental friendly approaches are needed to counteract these damaging effects. Since a laser can be remotely directed to neutralise undesirable targets, this approach could be highly promising for controlling insect pests in a selective and ecofriendly fashion. In this study, we present a laser system automated by machine vision for neutralising and influencing the behaviour of insect pests. By performing experiments on domiciliary cockroaches, Blattella germanica, we demonstrate that our approach enables the immediate and selective neutralisation of individual insects at a distance up to 1.2 m. We further show the possibility to deter cockroaches by training them not to hide under a dark shelter through aversive heat conditioning with a low power-laser. Parameters of our prototype system can readily be tuned for applications in various situations and on different pest species like mosquitoes, locusts, and caterpillars. The prospect of this study is to pursue the creation of a standalone, safe for the environment, compact, low-cost, and energy-efficient device system for pest control.

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