Cockroach cyborgs are not a new idea. Back in 2012, researchers at North Carolina State University were experimenting with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and wireless backpacks, showing the critters could be remotely controlled to walk along a track. The way scientists do this is by attaching the backpack and connecting wires to a cockroach’s “cerci,” two appendages at the end of the abdomen that are basically sensory nerves. One on the left, one on the right. Previous studies have shown electrical impulses to either side can stimulate the roach into moving in that direction, giving researchers some control over locomotion. But to send and receive signals, you need to power the backpack. You might be able to use a battery but, eventually, a battery will run out of power and the cyborg cockroach will be free to disappear into the leaf litter.
The team at Riken crafted the system to be solar-powered and rechargeable. They attached a battery and stimulation module to the cockroach’s thorax (the upper segment of its body). That was the first step. The second step was to make sure the solar cell module would adhere to the cockroach’s abdomen, the segmented lower section of its body. [T]he Riken team tested a number of thin electronic films, subjecting their roaches to a bunch of experiments and watching how the roaches moved depending on the thickness of the film. This helped them decide on a module about 17 times thinner than a human hair. It adhered to the abdomen without greatly limiting the degree of freedom the roaches had and also stuck around for about a month, greatly outlasting previous systems. “The current system only has a wireless locomotion control system, so it’s not enough to prepare an application such as urban rescue,” said Kenjiro Fukuda, an expert in flexible electronics at Japan’s Riken. “By integrating other required devices such as sensors and cameras, we can use our cyborg insects for such purposes.”
Fukuda notes the design of the ultrathin solar cell could be applied to other insects, like beetles and cicadas.
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