Sep 12, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Solar-Powered Cyborg Giant Cockroaches are Here - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

From almost the moment humans became a species, they have sought dominance over all other species on the planet. While domestication has been the method in a few cases, extermination – for food or for territory control – is most often the technique used. Both intentional and as a consequence of human expansion, the list of extinct species is a testament to this quest for superiority. There are a few notable cases where dominance has failed – rodents are a prime example, but generally the unconquerable species is from the insect world. From trying to eliminate beetles with cane toads in Australia to the worldwide use of pesticides and genetic modification to eliminate mosquitos, the lesson learned should probably be to pack up and admit defeat. However, in the case of cockroaches, scientists have turned to yet another method of attempted dominance – converting them into solar-powered cyborgs. What could possibly go wrong?

We have some ideas.

“Cyborg insects have been proposed for applications such as urban search and rescue. Body-mounted energy-harvesting devices are critical for expanding the range of activity and functionality of cyborg insects. However, their power outputs are limited to less than 1 mW, which is considerably lower than those required for wireless locomotion control. The area and load of the energy harvesting device considerably impair the mobility of tiny robots.”

In a new study published in the journal npj Flexible Electronics, an international team of researchers led by the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (CPR) in Japan explain why previous attempts at creating cyborg roaches using huge Madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa) had extremely limited success – and it is a reason we all can relate to … battery life.

“Advancements in electronics have resulted in the increasing integration of organisms and machines. The miniaturisation and fabrication of low-power consumption semiconducting chips through micro/nanofabrication have resulted in small-organism cyborgs.”

In the decade or so that scientists have been attempting to remotely control roaches and a few other insects, what would seem to be the hard part – developing electronic chips to make limbs move and replace the insect’s brain and instincts – turned to to be the easier part. Miniaturization in manufacturing and robotics has been going on for along time, and integrated circuits allowed their development to take a quantum leap downwards in size. While immobile robots can be connected to a power supply via a cord, mobility is the primary reason engineers have worked to downsize to boldly go where no human with their huge bodies can go – inside tubes and other tight places, into tight crevices, under low barriers, and even inside human arteries. While some of the tiniest have been able to perform limited functions under the control of a magnet, a battery gives robots the mobility to perform remotely. As we all know, batteries run down and must be replaced or recharged. Not that long ago, human intervention was mandatory to perform this operation, but robotic vacuum cleaners have shown that docking stations can operate independent of humans. Couldn’t a cyborg robotic roach – which looks like a miniature robot vacuum – do the same?

“Gromphadorhina portentosa (G. portentosa, Madagascar hissing cockroach) was used in this study. Electronic components were mounted on the dorsal side of the insect. A wireless locomotion control module consisting of wireless communication circuits, stimulation voltage controller circuits, boosting circuits, and a lithium–polymer battery was mounted on the thorax with the support of a three-dimensional (3D)-printed soft backpack that followed the curved surface of the thorax.”

The answer to that question is yes … and no. The stated purpose of this research is to develop controlled cyborg roaches to venture where humans cannot. Their destination could be a long way from home … or their docking station. A requirement for recharging at a home base would tether these cyborgs on distance- or time-sensitive missions. The researchers called up previous experiments with insect backpacks to develop one that had advanced capabilities but was ultrathin so it would not severely impact the capabilities of the insect – it is so light, the cyborg can right itself if flipped over. They chose the Madagascar hissing cockroach because of its broad back and strong legs – a perfect combination for carrying a backpack containing a chip, controls and a rechargeable battery. For controlling the roach, they turned to another familiar technology to bypass connecting directly to its brain.

“Locomotion control signals were transferred wirelessly from the external server using Bluetooth. Stimulation signals were applied to the cerci through wires to wirelessly control locomotion of the insect. Cerci are paired appendages on the rearmost segments of the abdomen. When electrical stimulation was applied to the right cercus, the insect made the turn-right locomotion and vice versa.”

Finally, to overcome the recharging obstacle, they turned to solar power.

“A 4 µm thick organic solar cell module was attached to the abdomen. The power generated by the ultrathin organic solar cell under simulated sunlight (100 mW cm–2) was boosted to 4.2 V by using a boosting circuit to charge the battery, and the battery supplied power to the wireless locomotion control module.”

Yes, we know … when you turn on the kitchen light, the roaches scurry under the refrigerator. How can they recharge their solar batteries? That is where the human with the remote control come into play – directing them into sunlight when the low-battery indicator comes on. The researchers found that 30 minutes of simulated sunlight illumination to the cyborg roach’s solar cell module resulted in 2.1 minutes where “locomotion control was attempted multiple times, which confirmed that the wireless control was successfully performed repeatedly.”

Does this mean no more dead roaches?

That brings us to the ultimate question: what could possibly go wrong when scientists create cyborg cockroaches? At this point in time … not much. The ultralight backpacks hold little besides the appendage controls and battery. The researchers need to find ultralight yet effective sensors, cameras, thermometers, carbon monoxide detectors and the like and integrate them into the backpacks without impacting the cyborg roach’s mobility and battery limits between solar charges. That battery limit exposes a big concern – if these cyborg roaches are weaponized (and you know that is one of the goals), what happens when their batteries drain and control returns to their devious little roach brains? The researchers are investigating better solar cells to get around this. If you are security conscious, your antenna undoubtedly went up at the mention of cameras and sensors – perfect tools for spying on the unsuspecting enemies … which these days is often the general public. Finally, the researchers found that these new ultralight backpack and abdomen devices can be used on other insects.

“Moreover, since abdominal deformation is not unique to cockroaches, our strategy can be adapted to other insects like beetles, or perhaps even flying insects like cicadas in the future.”

Flying cyborg cicadas! Communicatiing with giant cybog roaches! We’re gonna need bigger swatters, nets and boots!

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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