Japan's cyborg cocroach

Japan’s cyborg cockroach getting ready to assist in disaster relief efforts

As Japan­ese researchers are pro­gram­ming them to assist in dis­as­ter relief efforts and research in cat­a­stro­phe-hit areas, swarms of cyborg cock­roach­es will be the first to iden­ti­fy trapped sur­vivors in any cat­a­stro­phe, such as an earthquake.

Hope for imme­di­ate action to save and res­cue vic­tims has been aroused by the researchers’ recent pre­sen­ta­tion of their capa­bil­i­ty to mount “back­packs” of solar cells and elec­tron­ics on the bugs and con­trol their motion with a remote.

The flex­i­ble solar cell film was devel­oped by Ken­jiro Fuku­da and his team at the Thin-Film Device Lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Japan­ese research giant Riken. It is 4 microns thick, or rough­ly 1/25 the width of a human hair, and can fit on the insec­t’s abdomen.

The film allows the roach to move around with­out lim­i­ta­tion, and the solar cell gen­er­ates enough pow­er to process and con­vey direc­tion­al infor­ma­tion to the sen­so­ry organs on the bug’s hindquarters.

The study expand­ed on pre­vi­ous insect-con­trol stud­ies con­duct­ed at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore, and it may one day pro­duce cyborg insects that can enter dan­ger zones far more rapid­ly than robots.

“The bat­ter­ies inside small robots run out quick­ly, so the time for explo­ration becomes short­er,” Fuku­da said. “A key ben­e­fit (of a cyborg insect) is that when it comes to an insec­t’s move­ments, the insect is caus­ing itself to move, so the elec­tric­i­ty required is nowhere near as much.”

The research team chose Mada­gas­car hiss­ing cock­roach­es for the research because they are suf­fi­cient­ly large to car­ry the nec­es­sary equip­ment and lack wings that would hin­der the exper­i­ment. The bugs can maneu­ver around minor obsta­cles or right them­selves when they are flipped over, even with the back­pack and film attached to their backs.

There is still much to learn about this top­ic. In a recent demon­stra­tion, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei told a cyborg roach to turn left, caus­ing it to scram­ble in that gen­er­al direc­tion using a spe­cial­ized com­put­er and wire­less Blue­tooth sig­nal. But the bug turned in cir­cles when it obtained the “right” signal.

The next task is to minia­tur­ize the parts so that the insects can move more eas­i­ly and so that sen­sors and even cam­eras may be mount­ed. Kakei stat­ed that he invest­ed 5,000 yen ($1 = 143.3100 yen) on parts from Toky­o’s famous Aki­habara elec­tron­ics dis­trict to con­struct the cyborg backpack.

The roach­es can be removed from the lab’s ter­rar­i­um by remov­ing the back­pack and film. The insects can live up to five years in cap­tiv­i­ty and reach matu­ri­ty in just four months.

Fuku­da sees a wide range of appli­ca­tions for the solar cell film, which is made up of small lay­ers of plas­tic, sil­ver, and gold, beyond just dis­as­ter res­cue bugs. The film could be inte­grat­ed into skin patch­es or cloth­ing to track vital signs.

He said that on a sun­ny day, a para­sol cov­ered with the mate­r­i­al might pro­duce enough elec­tric­i­ty to recharge a phone.

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