Japanese researchers develop solar cell ‘backpacks’ for controllable cyborg cockroaches

If an earthquake strikes in the not-too-distant future and survivors are trapped under tons of rubble, the first responders to locate them could be swarms of cyborg cockroaches.

It’s a potential application of a recent breakthrough by Japanese researchers who demonstrated the ability to mount “backpacks” of solar cells and electronics on insects and control their movement by remote control.

Kenjiro Fukuda and his team at Japanese research giant Riken’s Thin-Film Device Laboratory have developed a flexible solar cell film that is 4 microns thick, or about 1/25 the width of a human hair, and can s adapt to the abdomen of the insect.

The film allows the cockroach to move freely while the solar cell generates enough energy to process and send directional signals to the sensory organs in the insect’s hindquarters.

The work builds on previous insect control experiments at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and could one day result in cyborg insects that can enter dangerous areas much more effectively than robots.

“The batteries inside small robots run out quickly, so the exploration time becomes shorter,” Fukuda said.

“A key advantage [of a cyborg insect] is that when it comes to the movements of an insect, the insect makes itself move, so the electricity needed is not nearly as great.”

Fukuda and his team chose Madagascar hissing cockroaches for the experiments because they are large enough to carry equipment and don’t have wings that would get in the way. Even when the backpack and the film are stuck to their backs, insects can cross small obstacles or straighten up when turned over.

Research 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 the cyborg cockroach to turn left, causing it to dash in that general direction. But when given the “right” signal, the bug spun around.

The next challenge is to miniaturize the components so that the insects can move around more easily and to allow the mounting of sensors and even cameras.

Kakei said he built the cyborg backpack with 5,000 yen (NZ$59) of parts bought in Tokyo’s famous Akihabara electronics district.

The backpack and the film can be removed, allowing the cockroaches to come back to life in the laboratory terrarium. The insects mature in four months and have been known to live up to five years in captivity.

Beyond disaster-saving bugs, Fukuda sees broad applications for solar cell film, made up of microscopic layers of plastic, silver and gold. The film could be embedded in clothing or skin patches for use in monitoring vital signs.

On a sunny day, a parasol covered in this material could generate enough electricity to charge a cellphone, he said.

-Reuters

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