The first thing you need to know about the Madagascar hissing cockroach, a black and brown invertebrate as long as your index finger, is that it lives up to its name. When it feels threatened, it lets out a hiss, quickly letting air through holes in its back. The result is something resembling the rattle of a snake’s tail. Weird but cool.

The second thing you should know about the Madagascar hissing cockroach is that scientists have used it to create insect cyborgs that could one day be used to monitor the environment or assist in urban search and rescue missions after natural disasters. disaster. Also weird. Also cool.

In a new study, published Monday in npj Flexible Electronics magazinean international team of researchers has revealed that it has created a system to remotely control the legs of cockroaches.

The system, which is basically a backpack for cockroaches connected to the creature’s nervous system, has a power output about 50 times higher than previous devices and is built with an ultra-thin and flexible solar cell that does not interfere with the cockroach’s movement. Pressing a button sends a shock to the backpack that tricks the cockroach into moving in a certain direction.

If you’re scared, let me explain.

The rise of the robo-cockroach

Cyborg cockroaches are not a new idea. In 2012, researchers at North Carolina State University experimented with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and wireless backpacksshowing that the creatures can be remotely controlled to walk on a track.

The way the scientists do this is by attaching the backpack and connecting wires to the 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 that electrical pulses from either side can stimulate the cockroach to move in that direction, giving the researchers some control over the movement.

But to send and receive signals, you need to power the backpack. You may be able to use a battery, but eventually the battery will die and the cyborg cockroach will be free to disappear into the leaf litter.

Riken’s team designed the system to be solar-powered and rechargeable. They attached a battery and stimulation module to a cockroach’s thorax (upper body segment). 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 part of its body.

While humans have developed optimal ways to carry a backpack, it’s not quite the same for insects. The segmented nature of a cockroach’s abdomen, for example, gives it the ability to curl up or roll over if it finds itself in a hairy situation. If you slap a sticky pack or charging cell on him, you limit his movement and take away his ability to maneuver.

To overcome this, Riken’s team tested a number of thin electronic films, subjecting their cockroaches to a series of experiments and watching how the cockroaches moved depending on the thickness of the film. This helped them decide on a module about 17 times thinner than a human hair. It stuck to the abdomen without significantly limiting the cockroaches’ degree of freedom and also stayed for about a month, significantly outliving previous systems.

Then the fun part (I guess): Remote control of the insects.

A researcher presses a button on the transmitter, sending a “turn right” signal to the cockroach.

Fukuda et al. al./Riken

In a series of experiments, the team demonstrated how the system could direct the cockroach exactly as it wanted via a wireless system. You can see that above.

And so far, that’s as far as they’ve come.

“The current system only has a wireless motion control system, so it is not enough to prepare an application such as urban rescue,” said Kenjiro Fukuda, a flexible electronics expert at Japan’s Riken. “By integrating other necessary devices such as sensors and cameras, we can use our cyborg insects for such purposes.”

Fukuda notes that the cameras will likely require much more power, but there are sensors that use little power that can be integrated into the system today. If cameras could be used, they would probably be very low resolution.

Notably, because of the design of the ultra-thin solar cell, Fukuda notes that it could be applied to other insects—potentially even creating a flying army of robot insects controlled by human hands. Beetles and cicadas are potential candidates.

Insect robots have little time. In July, researchers at Rice University unveiled their “necrobot” spiders, the insect-machine hybrids they used to create the world’s scariest claw machine.

But these spiders were dead. Cockroaches are not.

I have to admit that when I saw the images of the Roboroaks crawling in a certain direction, I felt a strange pang of…guilt. Or something like that, maybe. I wondered if there was any understanding by the creepy crawlers that their legs were being controlled against their will and that the process was painful. Fortunately, “according to insect research, cockroaches don’t feel pain,” Fukuda said. ugh

However, in recent years there has been some research looking at how insects can experience emotional states and a discussion of the ethical implications of such research. A recent piece in Undark Magazine also grapples with the issue of insect pain, noting that there is still a lack of understanding of insect consciousness.

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