A team of scientists from the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (Japan) has designed a new remote-controlled insect, equipped with a battery-powered ‘backpack’ powered by solar panels. Part insect, part machine, the cockroach is designed to sneak into dangerous areas, monitor the environment, or perform search and rescue missions without recharging.
The insect in question is a Madagascar hissing cockroach, a brown and black invertebrate that, when threatened, emits a hiss as air rushes through holes in its back. The result is something similar to the sound of a snake’s tail rattling.
In their study, published in the journal Flexible Electronics, the scientists show how they have designed a system to remotely control the legs of cockroaches from afar. The system, which is basically a cockroach backpack connected to the creature’s nervous system, has about 50 times the power output of previous devices and is built with an ultra-thin, flexible solar cell that doesn’t hamper the insect’s movement. How does it work? Pressing a button sends a shock to the backpack that tricks the roach into moving in a certain direction.
For a cyborg cockroach to be a good search and rescue tool, it must be able to accept instructions , and until we crack its communication code, remote control is the best way to do that.
The delicate, flexible electronics used to establish this control require power, and since there isn’t much room in a cockroach to store a battery, the researchers came up with the idea of making it solar-powered. Goodbye to the need for batteries.
“The body-mounted ultra-thin organic solar cell module achieves a power output of 17.2 mW, which is more than 50 times higher than the power output of current state-of-the-art energy harvesting devices in live insects” , the authors explain.
Are they robots or live animals?
The cockroach is alive, but it has two wires attached to its two “cerci” (sensory organs at the end of its abdomen) that send electrical impulses that make the insect move to the right or left.
Regarding the battery, they designed a solar cell on board that could continuously ensure that the cockroach remains charged while it works. Due to the issue of available space, the solution was to design a special ‘backpack’ that could perfectly transport both the wireless leg control module and the rechargeable lithium polymer battery. Printed in 3D, it allowed this rigid electronic device to be stably mounted on the insect for more than a month, while leaving space in other parts of the body to implant the solar panel.
“Taking into account the deformation of the thorax and abdomen during basic locomotion, a hybrid electronic system of rigid and flexible elements in the thorax and ultrasoft devices in the abdomen appears to be an effective design for cyborg cockroaches,” the researchers explained. “Furthermore, since abdominal deformation is not unique to cockroaches, our strategy may be adapted to other insects such as beetles, or perhaps even flying insects such as cicadas in the future.”
Referencia: Kakei, Y., Katayama, S., Lee, S. et al. Integration of body-mounted ultrasoft organic solar cell on cyborg insects with intact mobility. npj Flex Electron 6, 78 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41528-022-00207-2