Scientists control these cyborg cockroaches with solar-powered backpacks

The first thing to know about the Madagascar hissing cockroach, a black-and-brown invertebrate that is as long as your index finger, is that it lives up to its name. When it feels threatened, it squeaks by quickly passing air through holes in its back. The result is something that looks like a snake’s tail rattle. Weird but wonderful.

The second thing to know about the Madagascar cockroach is that scientists used it to create insect cyborgs that could one day be used to monitor the environment or aid in urban search and rescue missions after a natural disaster. strange too. Awesome too.

In a new study, published Monday in npj flexible electronics magazineAn international team of researchers has revealed that it has designed a system to remotely control the legs of cockroaches from afar.

The system, which is essentially a cockroach backpack connected to the creature’s nervous system, has a power output about 50 times higher than previous devices and is built with an ultra-thin and flexible solar cell that doesn’t impede the cockroach’s movement. Pressing the button causes a shock to the backpack, which tricks the cockroach into moving in a certain direction.

If you are upset, let me explain.

Rise of the robot cockroach

The cyborg cockroach is not a new idea. Back in 2012, researchers at North Carolina State University were experimenting with it Madagascar hissing cockroaches and wireless backpacksThese remote-controlled creatures appear to walk along the path.

The way scientists do this is by attaching a backpack and attaching wires to the cockroach’s “cerci,” two attachments at the end of the abdomen that are essentially sensory nerves. One on the left and one on the right. Previous studies have shown that electrical pulses on both sides can induce the cockroach to move in that direction, giving the researchers some control over the movement.

But to send and receive signals, you need to turn on the backpack. You may be able to use a battery, but eventually, the battery will run out and the cyborg cockroach will be free to hide in the leaf litter.

The team at Riken designed the system to be solar powered and rechargeable. They attached a battery and a stimulator to the cockroach’s chest (upper body). This was the first step. The second step was to make sure that the solar cell module would stick to the cockroach’s abdomen, the segmented lower part of its body.

While humans have come up with the best ways to wear a backpack, it is quite different for insects. The segmented nature of a cockroach’s abdomen, for example, gives it the ability to twist itself or turn itself over if it is exposed to a hairy situation. If you slap a sticky backpack or cargo cell on it, you limit its movement and take away its maneuverability.

To get around this, Riken’s team tested a number of electronic thin films, subjected their crickets to a series of experiments and watched how the crickets moved depending on the thickness of the film. This helped them decide on a unit about 17 times thinner than a human hair. It stuck to the belly without significantly reducing the degree of freedom the crickets had, and it also stuck out for about a month, greatly exceeding previous regulations.

Then the fun part (I suppose): remote insect control.

The researcher presses a button on the transmission device, and sends a “turn right” signal to the cockroach.

Fukuda and others / Riken

In a series of experiments, the team demonstrated how the system could steer the cockroach to the right, at will, via a wireless system. You can see that above.

Now, that’s as far as they can go.

“The current system only has a wireless motion control system, so it’s not enough to set up an application like urban rescue,” said Kenjiro Fukuda, a flexible electronics expert at Japan’s Riken. “By incorporating other required hardware such as sensors and cameras, we can use our own cyborg bugs for such purposes.”

Fukuda points out that cameras likely require more power, but there are sensors that use less power that can be integrated into the system today. If the cameras could be used, they would likely have a very low resolution.

Notably, because of the solar cell’s ultra-thin design, Fukuda points out, it could be applied to other insects—and potentially also creating a flying army of robotic insects controlled by human hands. Beetles and cicadas are potential candidates.

Insect robots are having a moment. In July, researchers at Rice University unveiled the “spider robots” – the insect-machine hybrids they used to create the world’s most feared claw machine.

But those spiders are dead. Cockroaches are not.

I must admit that when I saw pictures of robots crawling in a certain direction, I felt a strange pain from…the guilt. Or something like that, maybe. I wondered if there was any kind of understanding by fearsome reptiles that their legs are being set against their will and whether this process is painful. Fortunately, Fukuda said, “according to insect research, cockroaches do not experience pain.” Phew.

However, there has been some research in recent years looking at how insects experience emotional states and Discuss the ethical implications of such research. a A recent piece in the magazine Undark He wrestled with the issue of insect pain as well, noting that there is still a lack of understanding of insect consciousness.