Solar-powered cyborg cockroaches could aid first responders in disaster zones. Details

Kutl Ahmedia

If an earthquake happens in the not-too-distant future and survivors are buried under tons of wreckage, swarms of cyborg cockroaches could be the first responders to locate them

This is a potential application of a recent advancement made by Japanese researchers who demonstrated the ability to attach "backpacks" of solar cells and electronics to insects and remotely control their movement.

Kenjiro Fukuda and his team at the Thin-Film Device Laboratory of the Japanese research company Riken have created a flexible solar cell film that is 4 microns thick, or roughly 1/45 of the width of a human hair, and can fit on the abdomen of an insect.

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The film permits the roach to move freely while the solar cell generates enough energy to process and transmit directional messages to the insect's hindquarters' sense organs.

The effort relies on prior insect-control research conducted at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and may one day result in cyborg insects that can enter hazardous regions far more effectively than robots.

Fukuda stated, "Since the batteries in small robots deplete quickly, the time available for exploration decreases." "A key advantage (of a cyborg insect) is that when it comes to insect movement, the insect is forcing itself to move, thus less electricity is necessary."

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Fukuda and his team used Madagascar hissing cockroaches for the studies because they are large enough to carry the equipment and do not have wings that would impede the research. Even with the backpack and film affixed to their backs, the insects are able to cross small obstacles and right themselves if flipped over.

The research has a significant distance to travel. In a recent demonstration, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei utilized a modified computer and Bluetooth signal to command the cyborg roach to turn to the left, leading it to scramble in that general direction. However, when given the "correct" signal, the insect rotated in circles.

Miniaturizing the components so that insects may move more freely and allowing for the attachment of sensors and perhaps cameras is the next hurdle. Kakei stated that he made the cyborg backpack using components acquired from Tokyo's renowned Akihabara electronics area.

The backpack and film can be removed, enabling the roaches to return to their terrarium in the laboratory. Insects can live up to five years in captivity and reach maturity in four months.

Fukuda envisions numerous possibilities for the solar cell sheet, which is constructed of microscopic layers of plastic, silver, and gold. The film could be incorporated into garments or skin patches for vital sign monitoring.

He added that on a sunny day, a parasol wrapped with the material may generate enough power to charge a cell phone.


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