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Why scientists are developing cyborg cockroaches

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The cyborg cockroach. (RIKEN via SWNS)

By Danny Halpin via SWNS

A cyborg cockroach with an ultra-thin, solar-powered battery that can get into and report back from hazardous areas has been developed by scientists.

The real insects are controlled by a solar-powered wireless module with a rechargeable battery and they can move freely because of the backpack’s ultrathin electronics and flexible materials.

Researchers from the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (CPR) in Japan said their work builds on the development of cyborg insects by skipping the need to charge via a docking station, which would cost valuable time.

They added that to make the use of cyborg insects worthwhile, they need to be controlled for long periods of time and a solar cell means the battery will stay continuously charged.

Publishing their work in the journal npj Flexible Electronics, the team experimented by attaching a special backpack with a 0.004 mm-thick organic solar cell module onto the back of 6 cm-long Madagascar cockroaches.

Dr. Kenjiro Fukuda of REKIN CPR, who led the work, said: “The body-mounted ultrathin organic cell module achieves a power output of 17.2 mw, which is more than 50 times larger than the power output of current state-of-the-art energy harvesting devices on living insects.”

The 3D-printed backpack also contained a wireless leg-control module and lithium polymer battery and was modeled to fit perfectly along the curved surface of a cockroach, which allowed it to sit stably on the thorax for more than a month.

The ultrathin and flexible organic solar cell, and how it was attached, proved necessary to ensure the insect’s freedom of movement, the researchers said.

They realized that the abdomen changes shape and portions of the exoskeleton overlap so to accommodate this they interleaved adhesive and non-adhesive sections onto the films which meant they could bend while remaining attached.

When thicker solar cell films were tested or when they were uniformly attached, the cockroaches took twice as long to run the same distance and struggled to right themselves when flipped onto their backs.

Testing revealed that once the backpack was installed and the cells charged for 30 minutes using pseudo-sunlight, the researchers were able to make the animals move left and right using the wireless remote control.

Dr. Fukuda added: “Considering the deformation of the thorax and abdomen during basic locomotion, a hybrid electronic system of rigid and flexible elements in the thorax and ultrasoft devices in the abdomen appears to be an effective design for cyborg cockroaches.

“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.”

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