In a new study, an international team of researchers revealed it has engineered a system to remotely control the legs of cockroaches from afar.
The system, which is basically a cockroach backpack wired into the creature’s nervous system, has a power output about 50 times higher than previous devices and is built with an ultrathin and flexible solar cell that doesn’t hinder the roach’s movement. Pressing a button sends a shock to the backpack that tricks the roach into moving a certain direction.
Cockroach cyborgs are not a new idea. Back in 2012, researchers at North Carolina State University were experimenting with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and wireless backpacks, showing the critters could be remotely controlled to walk along a track.
The way scientists do this is by attaching the backpack and connecting wires to a 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 electrical impulses to either side can stimulate the roach into moving in that direction, giving researchers some control over locomotion.
But to send and receive signals, you need to power the backpack. You might be able to use a battery but, eventually, a battery will run out of power and the cyborg cockroach will be free to disappear into the leaf litter.
The team at Riken crafted the system to be solar-powered and rechargeable. They attached a battery and stimulation module to the cockroach’s thorax (the upper segment of its body). 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 section of its body.
While humans have worked out optimal ways to wear a backpack, it’s not quite the same for insects. The segmented nature of a cockroach’s abdomen, for instance, provides it with the ability to contort itself or flip itself over should it get into a hairy situation. If you slap a sticky backpack or charging cell on it, you limit its movement and take away its ability to maneuver.