In the future, the Cyborg Cockroaches could be utilized for search and rescue missions or environmental monitoring.
The Madagascar hissing cockroach is a black-and-brown invertebrate that is about as long as your forefinger. The first thing you should know about it is that it lives up to its name. It makes a hissing sound when it feels threatened by quickly blowing air through holes in its back. The result sounds like a rattle from a snake’s tail. Strange, but cool.
Scientists have used the Madagascar hissing cockroach to make insect cyborgs that could one day be used to monitor the environment or help with urban search and rescue missions after a natural disaster. Also weird. Cool too.
In a new study that came out Monday in the journal npj Flexible Electronics, researchers from around the world said they had made a way to control the legs of cockroaches from far away.
The system is a cockroach backpack that is wired into the insect’s nervous system. It has about 50 times more power than previous devices and is made with a thin, flexible solar cell that doesn’t get in the way of the roach’s movement. When you press a button, the backpack sends a shock to the roach, which makes it move in a certain direction.
If you’re freaked out, let me explain.
The robo-roach is on the rise
Cyborg cockroaches aren’t a new idea. Back in 2012, scientists at North Carolina State University used Madagascar hissing cockroaches and wireless backpacks to show that the bugs could be guided along a track by remote control.
Scientists do this by putting the backpack on a cockroach and attaching wires to its “cerci,” which are two appendages at the end of its abdomen that is essentially sensory nerves. Those two are off to the left and right, respectively. Electrical impulses sent to either side of the roach can make it move in that direction, which gives researchers some control over how it moves.
But the backpack needs to be powered to send and receive signals. You might be able to use a battery, but a battery will run out of power at some point, and the cyborg cockroach will be free to go back to hiding in the leaves.
The team at Riken made the system so that it could be powered by the sun and charged. They put a battery and a module that makes the cockroach move on its thorax (the upper segment of its body). The first step was to do that. The second step was to make sure that the solar cell module would stick to the cockroach’s abdomen, which is made up of several segments.
People have figured out the best way to wear a backpack, but insects don’t have quite the same problem. Because a cockroach’s abdomen is made up of separate parts, for example, it can twist or flip itself over if it gets into a sticky situation. Putting a sticky backpack or charging cell on it will stop it from moving and make it hard to control.
To get around this, the Riken team tried out different thin electronic films on roaches and watched how the roaches moved differently depending on how thick the film was. This helped them choose a module that is about 17 times thinner than a human hair. It stuck to the roaches’ bellies without making them much less free, and it stayed there for about a month, which was much longer than other systems.
Then (I think) comes the fun part: controlling the bugs with a remote.
In a series of tests, the team showed that the system could use a wireless system to move the roach to the right if that was what was wanted. That can be seen above.
That’s all they’ve accomplished thus far.
“The existing system’s wireless locomotion control isn’t enough for urban rescue,” says Kenjiro Fukuda of Japan’s Riken. “We can use our cyborg insects for these things by putting in other devices like sensors and cameras.”
Fukuda says that cameras would probably need a lot more power, but those low-power sensors could be added to the system right now. If cameras could be used, they would probably not have very high resolution.
Fukuda says that because of how the ultrathin solar cell is made, it could be used on other insects. It could even be used to make a flying army of robot insects that could be controlled by human hands. Beetles and cicadas are potential candidates.
Insect robots are kind of popular right now. In July, scientists at Rice University showed off their spider “necrobots,” which are insect-machine hybrids that they used to make the creepiest claw machine in the world.
The spiders were dead, though. There aren’t any roaches.
I have to say that when I saw the pictures of the roboroaches crawling in a certain direction, I felt a weird pang of… guilt. Or something like it, perhaps. I wondered if the creepy crawlers knew that their legs were being moved against their will and if it hurt. Fortunately, research on insects has shown that cockroaches don’t feel pain, “Fukuda said. Phew.
But in the past few years, there has been some research into how insects might feel and talk about the ethical implications of this kind of research. A recent article in Undark magazine also tried to answer the question of whether or not insects feel pain. The article said that we still don’t know much about whether or not insects are conscious.