Have you ever thought that you would see a solar powered cyborg cockroach carrying a backpack that looks like an electric circuit? A team of researchers at Japan’s RIKEN Research Institute have turned an ordinary Madagascar cockroach into a real cyborg by connecting a lithium battery, a solar cell, multiple wires and a small electronic circuit. Cyborg can be controlled using Bluetooth signals, and the researchers suggest that in the future, these robotic insects could be used for search and rescue missions.
The researchers refer to their cyborg as a hybrid insect-computer system that includes a live insect as a platform and a small electronic system as a controller. Basically, it is a dynamic robot that can be controlled like a robot, but has the ability to explore and navigate a complex environment with the mastery of an insect. Researchers claim that cyborgs can even outsmart traditional soft robots when it comes to useful real-world navigation.
go to the sun
Taking into account the body shape of the 6-centimeter cockroach, the researchers designed a polymer backpack that can carry all the electronic equipment without disturbing the insect when it moves. The backpack carried an electronic control unit, lithium battery, and multiple wires. Each wire was connected to the controller on one side and to different legs of the cockroach on the other side.
Whenever the researchers want the cockroach to move, they send a Bluetooth signal to the circuit board, which transmits electrical current to the legs through wires. These currents mimic sensory inputs that direct the cockroach to move left or right, taking advantage of reflexive behaviour. The cockroach brain is still necessary to activate its muscles and move the cockroach.
However, researchers soon realized that a cyborg might be required to operate for several days or even weeks. A small lithium battery will not be enough to meet the power requirements for a long time, and since the cockroach’s brain is intact, it may abandon any mission it was sent and run away.
To enhance the power supply, an ultra-thin solar cell was constructed and implanted on the cockroach’s abdomen to overcome this problem. Although the solar cell was only 4 x 10 mm thick, it provided 50 times the power needed for the controller. Unfortunately, it was wide enough to impede the cockroach’s movement. During the initial testing, the researchers found that the insect was moving at half its original speed, and every time it flipped or fell, it was unable to return to its normal orientation.
The researchers made some adjustments to the cell’s position and arrangement, and finally, they were able to equip the cyborg cockroach with a solar cell and battery that delivers 17.2 megawatts of power.
While explaining further the importance of the solar cell module, research scientists and one of the study’s authors, Kenjiro Fukuda, told Ars Technica, “To achieve the urban rescue mission, cyborgs have motion control computers, and search sensors.” [for] People, walkie-talkie. These require 10-100 MW of total power consumption. Therefore, energy-harvesting devices mounted on insects are essential to increase the range of activity and functionality of biorobots.”
He also said that other scientists have proposed additional types of biorobots ranging from moth robots to cyborg beetles. However, most of these cyborgs lack energy-gathering devices on their bodies because the space and load of the harvesting device greatly impair their ability to move. So adding a suitable energy-gathering device (solar cell) to recharge the ECU on a cyborg was one of the major achievements of their research.
Soft robots vs cyborgs
It may seem more practical and easier to use soft robots than cyborgs in search and rescue missions. Soft robots will never give up the task like cyborg cockroaches; In addition, it can be made faster and more efficient. So, why do we need cyborg bugs? The answer is power and cost – to turn a cockroach into a cyborg, all we need is a microcircuit, a power source, some wires, a controller, and a polymer backpack. The soft robot is made entirely from scratch.
Although wiring a cockroach’s legs may seem like a waste of time, the amount of time needed to build a soft robot is greater. Moreover, such robots require high energy compared to their insect counterparts. “We control the insects’ movement using electrical signals from sensory nerves. This approach requires a power consumption of about 100 megawatts, which is much lower than the power consumption required for mobile actuators of small robots (usually 100 megawatts or larger), Fukuda said.
Aside from having robot capabilities, a cyborg cockroach navigates an environment using the inputs it receives from its natural senses. This is something that robots can never accomplish, and thus, researchers argue that cyborgs can provide better assistance during search and rescue missions than any other technology. Fukuda and his team now plan to produce cyborg versions of other types of insects, including those that can fly.
Flexible Electronics npj, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41528-022-00207-2 (about DOIs)
Robindra Brahambhat is an experienced journalist and filmmaker. He covers science and culture news, and for the past five years he has been actively working with some of the most innovative news agencies, magazines and media brands operating in different parts of the world.
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