You’re trapped. An earthquake or a tsunami struck, and you’re stuck beneath rubble. You feel something crawling up your arm. Don’t panic! It’s a cyborg cockroach, here to rescue you.
New research may make cockroaches super useful (if still super gross). Japanese scientists are combining nature and technology to create remote-controlled cockroaches. Someday soon, these creepy crawlers could help first responders explore hazardous areas.
Okay, we’re all thinking it: Why cockroaches?
Rescue workers often use small robots to reach dangerous, hard-to-access areas. But these robots lose battery power quickly, cutting exploration short. It takes much less power to steer a remote-controlled cockroach. Cockroaches can skillfully navigate obstacles. They can flatten their bodies to pass through tiny crevices. If a cockroach flips over, it can right itself. Take that, robots.
How does this work? Ask Kenjiro Fukuda. He and his team build thin-film devices at their laboratory, the creatively named Thin-Film Device Laboratory. They attach tiny solar-powered backpacks to Madagascar hissing cockroaches. A flexible solar cell film absorbs energy from sunlight. It’s just four microns thick—about 1/25 as wide as a human hair. These electronic components send directional signals straight to the cockroach’s rear end.
Believe it or not, Fukuda’s team isn’t the first to computerize the cockroach. Scientists at the University of North Carolina created a slightly bulkier cyborg cockroach that receives signals through its antennae. Other scientists used the American cockroach as a template for roach-shaped rescue robots. (See Roaches to the Rescue at teen.wng.org/node/2118.)
The technology still needs work. Sometimes the device’s signal sends the bugs crawling in circles. A nice dance routine, maybe, but not great for rescue missions.
Fukuda and his team want to build even tinier backpacks, making it easier for the roaches to roam. With some work, they could even add sensors and cameras. The current cyborg backpack costs about 5,000 yen ($35) to build.
The thin solar cell film could have uses beyond the realm of remote-controlled bugs. Fukuda says the film could be used in clothing or skin patches to monitor vital signs. On a sunny day, a parasol covered in the material could generate enough power to charge a cell phone.
After their experiments, researchers remove the tiny backpacks and return the cockroaches to their terrarium. The roaches can live up to five years in captivity—not bad for a bug.
God gave us a world full of resources to steward. He also gives people creativity to combine those resources in weird and wonderful new ways. Even a (still super gross) pest can become something helpful.
Why? With some creativity and some scientific know-how, even the smallest and strangest things can serve useful purposes.