This remote controlled cyborg cockroach could save your life

This remote controlled cyborg cockroach could save your life

This remote controlled cyborg cockroach could save your life

These unloved insects may someday become valuable allies.

In some areas and especially in unhygienic spaces, cockroaches are a real nuisance. In addition to being unsightly, they can pose a real public health problem as they are also vectors of some diseases. But these unloved creatures also have many interesting features that put them at the center sometimes very original research projects ; For example, an international team of researchers has just created solar-powered remote-controlled cyborg cockroaches.

The idea is not new, far from it. As early as 2012, researchers from North Carolina State University showed that it was possible to remotely control these insects. The concept is based on a sort of “backpack”; it is directly connected to the insect’s nervous system through cerci, appendages placed at the extremity of the insect’s abdomen.

By emitting carefully calibrated electrical impulses, it is possible to stimulate the nervous system to force the cockroach to move in a specific direction. Note that these are not dead insects, as in the case of the famous “necrobot“(See our article); here the guinea pigs are alive and well.

An ultra-light photovoltaic film

The concept is very interesting, because many possible applications can be imagined for “biobots” of this type. But this work has remained very exploratory so far. The main limitation of this approach concerns autonomy. As soon as the battery is exhausted, the cyborg recovers all its autonomy, and will certainly not return to the fold to allow researchers to recharge it.

And the problem is, it’s very difficult to build a decent battery on this scale. The work on cyborg-cockroaches has therefore not progressed much in recent years. This is where this new research team from Riken University in Japan comes into play; its members have developed a new interface with much greater autonomy thanks to the inclusion of tiny solar panels.

© Kakei et al.

This is an approach that has already been considered. But this has never been done so far; it is really very difficult to apply in practice. It is in fact necessary that these photovoltaic surfaces are extremely light and flexible in order not to hinder the movements of the insect. The researchers also had to find a way to get them to adhere to their shell (or rather, their chitin exoskeleton), which is much easier said than done.

They ended up inventing a system that ticks all of these boxes at once. It is based on a very efficient photovoltaic film. It is 17 times thinner than a hair and is able to adhere to the chitin for a month by constantly recharging the stimulator’s battery.

Lots of potential applications

To prove their system works, they conducted a series of experiments in which they forced their cyborgs to run around with a rudimentary remote control. For the time being, this work has stopped there and they have not explored the potential uses of this system. But it is still a very interesting proof of concept, because it could allow these cyborgs to contribute to the resolution of very concrete problems.

For example, they could help rescuers find victims trapped under rubble after an earthquake. With a little imagination you can also imagine many other applications related to safety, the environment, the exploration of dangerous areas …

At present, this technology is not yet mature enough. ” The current system only has a wireless locomotion control system, which is not sufficient to prepare an application such as urban rescue “Explains Kenjiro Fukuda, one of the authors of the study.

Swarms of drones are on the way … and some may be cyborgs. © Yuman Gao / Rui Jin / New scientist

New avenues of research all traced

But the advantage is that now the road is all drawn; all that remains is to miniaturize various sensors and optimize the system, and these cyborgs will immediately become very interesting tools. ” By integrating other devices such as cameras and other sensors, we will be able to use these cyborg bugs for such applications. “Says Fukada.

The other very interesting point is that this is probably just the beginning. Because the photovoltaic film developed by his laboratory is so light that it also allows us to consider applications for other insects. And this also applies to flying species such as cicadas!

The advantage is that this technology could be easily implemented on an industrial scale, because nature is part of the job; it is much cheaper to breed insects in large quantities and attach a small electronic package to them than to produce an army of conventional drones.

Researchers are therefore no longer far from being able to produce real squadrons of small flying cyborgs. With the rise of AI and knowing the countless potential applications of these swarms (see our article), it’s safe to say that this work represents a significant step forward.

An ethical problem to foresee?

One caveat, however; it will also be necessary to make an ethical inventory of this approach before considering a large-scale deployment. Because even though Japanese researchers claim that cockroaches feel no pain as part of this work, researchers recently recalled that the reality is more nuanced (see our article).

Today, no one can say with absolute certainty that insects are immune to what humans call pain. It would therefore be desirable to be clear before taking the risk of torturing entire generations of cockroaches. It will therefore be interesting to follow the results of this work, and not only in strictly technological terms.

The text of the study is available here.

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