If in the not-too-distant future an earthquake hits and survivors are trapped under tons of debris, the first responders to locate them could be swarms of cyborg cockroaches.
This is a potential application of a recent breakthrough by Japanese researchers, who demonstrated the ability to attach “backpacks” containing solar cells and electronics to the beetles and control their movement by remote control.
Kenjiro Fukuda and his team at Japanese research giant Riken’s Thin-Film Device Laboratory developed a flexible solar cell film that’s 4 microns thick, about 1/25 the width of a human hair, and fits on the 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 on the beetle’s hindquarters.
The work builds on previous insect control experiments at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and could one day lead to cyborg insects that can invade dangerous areas much more efficiently than robots.
“The batteries in small robots run out quickly, so the time for exploration becomes shorter,” said Fukuda. “A key advantage (of a cyborg insect) is that the insect moves itself when it moves, so the current required is not nearly as high.”
Fukuda and his team chose Madagascar hissing cockroaches for the experiments because they are large enough to carry equipment and don’t have interfering wings. Even if the rucksack and foil are glued to the back, the beetles can overcome small obstacles or stand up again when they turn around.
Research still has a long way to go. In a recent demonstration, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei used a specialized computer and a Bluetooth wireless signal to tell the cyborg cockroach to turn left, causing it to crawl itself in that general direction. But when the “right” signal was given, the beetle went in circles.
The next challenge is to miniaturize the components to make it easier for the insects to move and to mount sensors and even cameras. Kakei said he built the cyborg backpack using 5,000 yen ($35) worth of parts he bought in Tokyo’s famous electronics district, Akihabara.
The backpack and foil can be removed so the cockroaches can be brought back to life in the lab’s terrarium. The insects become sexually mature in four months and can live up to five years in captivity.
Beyond disaster rescue, Fukuda sees broad applications for the solar cell film, which is made up of microscopic layers of plastic, silver and gold. The film could be incorporated into clothing or skin patches for use in vital signs monitoring.
On a sunny day, a parasol covered with the material could generate enough electricity to charge a cellphone, he said.