Have you ever thought that a cockroach might one day save people? Well, swarms of cyborg cockroaches might be the first to find survivors after a terrible earthquake.
Recently, Japanese researchers showed that it was possible to attach “backpacks” of solar cells and electronics to the bugs, allowing for remote control of their movement. This could have practical use in the field.
The Japanese research powerhouse Riken, led by Kenjiro Fukuda and his colleagues at the Thin-Film Device Laboratory, created a flexible solar cell film that is only 4 microns thick, or approximately 1/25 the diameter of a human hair, and can be worn on the abdomen of an insect.
The roach is free to walk around while the solar cell generates enough energy to process and convey directional messages to the bug’s hindquarters-mounted sensory organs.
Fukuda and his team decided to research Madagascar hissing cockroaches since they are large enough to transport the necessary equipment and don’t have any wings to get in the way. The bugs can still overcome minor impediments and right themselves if they are flipped over while wearing the backpack and film attached to their backs.
There is much more work to be done on this research. Recently, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei demonstrated how to command the cyborg roach to turn left by sending a signal via Bluetooth and a customized computer. However, when given the “correct” movement, the beetle flew in a zigzag pattern.
To solve this problem, the next step is to reduce the size of the individual parts, allowing the insects greater freedom of movement and facilitating the attachment of sensors and cameras. Kakei claimed he spent around $35 (around ₱2,000) on pieces for the cyborg backpack he built and acquired from the world-famous Akihabara electronics district in Tokyo.
After the roaches’ film and bag are taken away, they can return to their typical environment in the lab’s terrarium. The insects reach adulthood in around four months but can survive for as long as five years if properly cared for.
Fukuda thinks the solar cell film, made of fragile layers of plastic, silver, and gold, has far-reaching potential beyond its current use in disaster-relief insects. It’s possible to incorporate the film into clothing or skin patches to track physiological functions.
He claimed that one might generate enough power from a parasol wrapped in the material on a sunny day to charge a mobile phone. The roach is free to walk around while the solar cell generates enough energy to process and convey directional messages to the bug’s hindquarters-mounted sensory organs.