These unloved insects could one day become valuable allies.
In some areas and especially in unsanitary spaces, cockroaches are a real nuisance. In addition to being unsavory, they can pose a real public health problem since they are also vectors of certain diseases. But these unloved creatures also have many interesting features that put them at the center of sometimes very original research projects ; For example, an international team of researchers has just created remote-controlled, solar-powered cyborg cockroaches.
The idea is not new, far from it. As early as 2012, researchers at North Carolina State University demonstrated that it was possible to remote control these insects. The concept is based on a kind of “backpack”; it is connected directly to the nervous system of the insect via the cerci, these appendages located at the end of the abdomen of the insect.
By delivering 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 “necrobots” (see our article); here, the guinea pigs are alive and well.
An ultralight photovoltaic film
The concept is very interesting, because one can imagine lots of possible applications for “biobots” of this type. But this work has so far remained very exploratory. The main limitation of this approach concerns autonomy. As soon as the battery is exhausted, the cyborg recovers all its autonomy, and it will certainly not return to the fold to allow the researchers to recharge it.
And the problem is that it is very difficult to build a decent battery on this scale. Work on cockroaches-cyborgs has therefore not progressed much in recent years. That’s where this new research team from Riken University in Japan comes in; its members have developed a new interface with much greater autonomy thanks to the inclusion of tiny solar panels.
This is an approach that had already been considered. But that has never come to fruition so far; it is indeed very difficult to apply in practice. It is indeed necessary that these photovoltaic surfaces are extremely light and flexible so as not to handicap the movements of the insect. The researchers also had to find a way to make them stick to their shell (or rather, their chitin exoskeleton), which is much easier said than done.
They ended up coming up with 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 capable of adhering to chitin for a month while constantly recharging the stimulator battery.
Loads of potential applications
To demonstrate that their system works, they conducted a series of experiments where they forced their cyborgs to spin with a rudimentary remote control. For the moment, this work has stopped there, and they have not explored the potential uses of this system. But it is all the same a very interesting proof of concept, because it could make it possible to make these cyborgs 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 lots of other applications related to safety, the environment, the exploration of dangerous areas…
As it stands, this technology is not yet mature enough. ” The current system only has a wireless locomotion control system, which is not enough to prepare an application like urban rescue “, explains Kenjiro Fukuda, one of the authors of the study.
New avenues of research all traced
But the advantage is that the road is now all mapped out; 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 insects for applications of this type. “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 even allows applications to be considered for other insects. And this even concerns flying species like cicadas!
The advantage is that this technology could easily be deployed on an industrial scale, because nature does some of the work; 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 is safe to say that this work represents a considerable 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 if the Japanese researchers claim that the cockroaches do not feel any pain as part of this work, researchers have recently reminded 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 about it 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.