If one Earthquake Set in the near future and survivors trapped under tons of rubble, the first responders to locate them may be cyborg cockroaches.
This is a potential application of recent research by Japanese scientists, who demonstrated the ability to put “backpacks” of photoelectric cells and electronics into insects and control their movements from a distance.
Kenjiro Fukuda and his team at the Japanese research giant Riken’s Thin-Device Laboratory have developed a flexible film of solar cells that is 4 microns thick, about 1/25 of a hair, and can be attached to the insect’s abdomen.
This film allows the cockroach to move freely, while the photovoltaic cell generates enough energy to process and send directional signals to the sensory organs located on the insect’s back.
The work builds on previous pest control experiments at Nanyang Technological University in SingaporeIt could one day lead to cyborgs entering dangerous areas more efficiently than robots.
“The batteries inside the small robots run out quickly, so the exploration time becomes shorter,” Fukuda said. “One of the main benefits[of a cyborg bug]is that when it comes to the insect, it is moving on its own, so the electricity it needs is much less.”
Fukuda and his team chose hissing cockroaches Madagascar for experiments, since it is large enough to carry equipment and has no wings to get in the way. Even when the backpack and film are glued to the back, insects can walk through small obstacles or straighten up when turned upside down.
The search still has a long way to go. In a recent demonstration, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei used a specialized computer and a wireless Bluetooth signal to tell a cyborg cockroach to turn left, causing it to move in that direction. But when it received the signal to “right”, the insect rotates in circles.
The next challenge is to make the components smaller so that insects can move around more easily and to allow the installation of sensors and even cameras. Kakei said he spent about $35 to assemble the cyborg backpack, which uses parts purchased from the popular Akihabara electronics district in Tokyo.
The backpack and foil can be removed, allowing the cockroaches to come back to life in the lab terrarium. Insects live for up to five years in captivity.
In addition to saving insects, Fukuda sees wide applications for solar cell wafers, which are made up of microscopic layers of plastic, silver and gold. The substance can be applied to clothing or skin patches for use in monitoring vital signs, for example.
On a sunny day, he said, a canopy covered in material can generate enough electricity to charge a cell phone.
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