Cyborg cockroaches will become first responders to disasters

Technology is taking over a lot of jobs and the newest sector may be the first responder as in the near future after an earthquake smashes a building and survivors are trapped under tons of debris and rubble, swarms of cyborg cockroaches may be just the solution. Find these survivors and locate them.

This is a potential application of a recent breakthrough by Japanese researchers who demonstrated the ability to mount “backpacks” of solar cells and electronics on insects and control their movement via a remote control.

Kenjiro Fukuda and his team in the Thin Device Laboratory at Japanese research giant Riken have developed a flexible solar cell film that is 4 microns thick, a human hair about 1/25 wide, and can fit on an insect’s abdomen.

The film allows the cockroach to move freely while the solar cell generates enough energy to process and send directional signals to the sensory organs at the insect’s rear.

A Madagascar cockroach sits with a “backpack” of electronic devices, in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 16, 2022. (Reuters Photo)

The work builds on previous pest control experiments at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and could one day result in cyborgs that can enter dangerous areas more efficiently than robots.

“The batteries inside the small robots run out quickly, so the exploration time becomes shorter,” Fukuda said. “The main advantage (of a cyborg bug) is that when it comes to the insect’s motion, the insect causes itself to move, so the electricity required isn’t anywhere near that much.”

Fukuda and his team chose Madagascar crickets for the trials because they are large enough to carry equipment and have no wings to get in their way. Even when the backpack and film are glued to their backs, insects can pass small obstacles or correct themselves when turned over.

The search still has a long way to go. In a recent demonstration, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei used a specialized computer and a wireless Bluetooth signal to tell a cyborg cockroach to turn left, causing it to lunge in that general direction. But when the “correct” signal was given, the error turned in circles.

Researcher showing a yellowing Madagascar cockroach, pinned with the letter
A researcher shows a yellowing Madagascar cockroach, affixed with a “backpack” of electronic devices, in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 16, 2022. (Reuters Photo)

The next challenge is to make the components smaller so insects can move around more easily and to allow the installation of sensors and even cameras. Kiki said he made a cyborg backpack with spare parts worth 5,000 yen ($35) purchased at the popular Akihabara electronics district of Tokyo.

The backpack and film can be removed, allowing the cockroaches to come back to life in the lab aquarium. The insects mature at four months and have been known to live up to five years in captivity.

Beyond disaster rescue bugs, Fukuda sees wide applications for solar cell film, which is made up of microscopic layers of plastic, silver and gold. The film can be incorporated into clothing or skin patches for use in monitoring vital signs.

On a sunny day, he said, the canopy covered with the material can generate enough electricity to charge a mobile phone.

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