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Researchers create solar powered cyborg cockroaches

The idea of using cockroaches to help search and rescue missions has been in development for quite some time. Now, Japanese researchers have implemented solar cells into an electronic backpack which can be mounted onto real cockroaches.

Some scientific research projects are so off-the-wall it’s hard to believe they’re actually real.

Such is the case with RIKEN’s newly-developed solar cell cockroach backpack. Created by researchers in Japan, it mounts onto a remote-controlled cyborg cockroach and can navigate through warzones and remote, dangerous sites. Yes, I’m being serious.

The small module will allow researchers to remotely control the insect’s movements via electrical stimulation in its abdomen. It includes a rechargeable battery connected to a solar cell, which means the device can continually generate electricity on the move without the need for battery replacements.

To be clear, the electronics are attached to a real cockroach – not a robot made from scratch. We’re not that deep down the Matrix rabbit hole just yet.

The inclusion of a solar cell is an upgrade from previous models first developed by North Carolina State University in 2015. These originally used regular, small batteries, limiting the time available to navigate the insect before power ran out.

Other bugs and creatures have been given a cyborg makeover for a variety of uses. Cyborg locusts, for example, can be used to identify explosives through smell, while cyborg dragonflies have proven to be effective miniature drones. Even beetles have received the robotics treatment.

It’s hoped that cockroaches can be used for search and rescue missions in dangerous areas or through disaster zones. They can fit through tiny cracks in debris, rubble, or wreckage, potentially finding human survivors in difficult to reach places. A solar cell means researchers won’t be limited by battery life – and could control a cockroach indefinitely.

You’re probably wondering exactly how a solar cell and battery even fits on a tiny insect. The backpack itself includes a lithium polymer battery, a wireless receiver, and a module that controls the cockroach’s legs.

An organic solar cell module is then mounted to the abdomen.

It’s ultra-thin and made from film, measuring only 0.004mm thick. It has to be light enough for a bug to carry and includes both adhesive and non-adhesive parts in order to keep the cockroach’s movement uninterrupted.

There’d be no point in a fancy backpack if you couldn’t go anywhere, right?

The solar cell has a power output of 17.2 mW and can run the electronics for roughly 150 minutes on a full charge. According to the researchers, this is fifty times higher than any other energy-harvesting device currently being used on living insects.

What’s more, the team says this tech could be implemented onto other insects, not just cockroaches. We could see this type of innovation extend well beyond its current uses, and it could become a staple of bioengineering in the future.

We’ll need to ensure that these developments are humane and ethical, especially as it becomes a more widespread practice. Even back in its earliest days, debate surrounding the moral implications of hijacking another creature’s consciousness has been swirling. Any video you’ll watch on the subject sparks argument in the comment section.

It is ultimately down to the individual research teams how they approach their work. For now, though, it’s early days. Could cyborg insects simply be a staple of modern environmental climate change adaption? In this warming world anything is possible.



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