“The team experimented with Madagascar cockroaches, which are approximately 6cm long. They attached the wireless leg-control module and lithium polymer battery to the top of the insect on the thorax using a specially designed backpack, which was modelled after the body of a model cockroach,” said LeKenjiro Fukuda, lead researcher at RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (CPR). These researchers see these cockroaches being used in search and rescue missions or for environmental monitoring in the future.
How researchers made the cockroach move
The system, which is basically a cockroach backpack wired into the creature’s nervous system, is built with an ultrathin and flexible solar cell that doesn’t hinder the roach’s movement. Pressing a button sends a shock to the backpack that tricks it into moving a certain direction. A design strategy for mounting ultrathin films onto the abdomen was established that did not interfere with the basic motion of the insect.
“Considering the deformation of the thorax and abdomen during basic locomotion, a hybrid electronic system of rigid and flexible elements in the thorax and ultrasoft devices in the abdomen appears to be an effective design for cyborg cockroaches,” said Fukuda.
Since abdominal deformation is not unique to cockroaches, “our strategy can be adapted to other insects like beetles, or perhaps even flying insects like cicadas in the future,” he added.
Urban rescue missions still some time way
Researchers have been attempting to design cyborg insects — part insect, part machine — to help inspect hazardous areas or monitor the environment. However, Fukuda admitted that for these cyborgs to be used to help in urban search-rescue missions, there’s still some more time to go. “The current system only has a wireless locomotion control system, so it’s not enough to prepare an application such as urban rescue,” said Fukuda. “By integrating other required devices such as sensors and cameras, we can use our cyborg insects for such purposes.”
Fukuda added that using cameras would likely require a lot more power, but there are sensors that use little power that could be integrated into the system today
Incidentally, cockroach cyborg is not a new idea. In 2012, researchers at North Carolina State University reportedly experimented with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and wireless backpacks, showing how they can be remotely controlled to walk along a track.