Being our go-to creatures for all manner of scientific and technological tests, rats often get the craziest gear several generations before we humans do. So what's latest and greatest in rat tech? The RatCar, a brain-controlled, battery-powered rodent buggy.
The RatCar, developed by researchers at the University of Tokyo, is controlled by electrodes implanted directly into the rodent driver's motor cortex, unlike other devices that use non-invasive sensors. It's the first step toward a brain-machine interface that would allow disabled (human) individuals to control their wheelchairs entirely with their minds. So how do you teach a rat to drive with its brain?
The rats were trained on the car by towing it around an enclosed area with the motors disengaged. A vision system positioned above tracked the rats by following coloured markers on their backs and the vehicle. It fed the positions into a "locomotion estimation model" program that correlated the motion of the animals with readings from the electrodes.
Next the rats were suspended more tightly to the car so their limbs touched the floor only slightly. The researchers then switched the system into "neuro-robotic mode," with the neural signals used to help drive the car. Six out of eight rats used in the study adapted well to the car.
The researchers admit that there is some uncertainty about how much of the driving the rats were actually doing, and they're designing new tests to refine the system. In the meantime, just be glad that this particular rat doesn't have world domination on the mind. Yet. [Spectrum IEEE via PopSci]