Home Science & Technology Cyborg cockroaches to the rescue!

Cyborg cockroaches to the rescue!

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Researchers have been trying to develop cyborg insects — part insect, part machine — to help inspect dangerous areas or monitor the environment. However, for the use of cyborg insects to be practical, handlers must be able to control them remotely for long periods of time. This requires wireless control of their leg segments, powered by a tiny rechargeable battery. Keeping the battery properly charged is fundamental – no one wants a team of cyborg cockroaches wandering around that’s suddenly out of control. Although docking stations can be built to recharge the battery, the need to return and recharge can disrupt urgent missions. Therefore, the best solution is to include an on-board solar panel that can continuously charge the battery.

A schematic showing each component of the cyborg cockroach.

All this is easier said than done. To successfully integrate these devices into the cockroach, which has limited surface area, the research team needed to develop a special backpack, ultra-thin organic solar cell modules, and an adhesion system that keeps the machine attached for long periods of time while allowing natural movements.

Led by Kenjiro Fukuda of RIKEN CPR, the team experimented with Madagascar cockroaches, about 6 cm long. They attached a wireless leg control module and a lithium-polymer battery to the insect’s upper thorax using a specially designed backpack that was modeled after the body of a cockroach model. The backpack was 3D printed using a stretchy polymer and conformed perfectly to the cockroach’s curved surface, allowing the rigid electronic device to stay stable on its chest for over a month.

An ultrathin organic solar cell module with a thickness of 0.004 mm was mounted on the dorsal side of the abdominal cavity. “The ultra-thin organic solar cell module mounted on the housing achieves a power of 17.2 mW, which is more than 50 times the power of current state-of-the-art energy harvesting devices based on living insects,” Fukuda said.

cyborg roach in motion

A live shot of a cyborg cockroach.

An ultra-thin and flexible organic solar cell and a method of attaching it to the insect proved necessary to ensure freedom of movement. After carefully studying the natural movements of the cockroach, the researchers realized that the abdomen changes shape and parts of the exoskeleton overlap. To accommodate this, they alternated sticky and non-sticky areas on the films, which allowed them to bend but also stay attached. When thicker solar cell films were tested or when the films were uniformly attached, the cockroaches took twice as long to run the same distance and had difficulty straightening up when lying on their backs.

After these components were integrated into cockroaches, along with wires that stimulate the leg segments, the new cyborgs were tested. The battery was charged with pseudo-sunlight for 30 min, and the animals were made to turn left and right using a wireless remote control.

“Given the deformation of the thorax and abdomen during basic movements, a hybrid electronic system of rigid and flexible elements in the thorax and ultra-soft devices in the abdomen appears to be an effective design for cyborg cockroaches,” says Fukuda. “Furthermore, since abdominal deformation is not unique to cockroaches, our strategy can be adapted to other insects such as beetles, or perhaps even to flying insects such as cicadas in the future.”

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