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Biohybrids to the Rescue: (R)evolution of the Cyborg Cockroach

Robot cockroach
Photo Credit: P. T. Tran-Ngoc et al. (2013)

The concept has been around for over a decade: Robotic cockroaches toting Bluetooth-powered backpacks that can make them move where you need them to move. As creators of our own cyborg roach, we’ve also had a say in it. Which makes us all the happier to observe that the idea has caught on and is getting new shape!

Earlier this year, a group of scientists led by Hirotaka Sato from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University managed to fit a cockroach backpack with an infrared camera and a little processor. The reason? These devices can turn the bug into an efficient detector of living things. The mission? A roach so decked out can squiggle its way through rubble in disaster zones and discover survivors where dogs or even your average-sized robot would be likely to fail. Assemble a contingent of hundreds or even thousands of these swift and agile robotic roaches, and you could make an enormous difference in areas that would otherwise have been impossible to reach.

To be sure, much improvement and tweaking is still needed before squads of rescue bugs embark on their first heroic mission. The engineering journey has been arduous too. At first, Sato and his team were only able to remotely direct the cockroach left and right, just like we do with our RoboRoach. But then they developed a navigation algorithm that rendered the roach’s movement autonomous, as published in May this year in Advanced Intelligent Systems. With more testing and honing ahead, the whole rig will get dependable enough in 3-5 years from now, the team expect.

Another thing that they did better is coming up with a less invasive way to connect with the nervous system of the bug without operating on it. Instead of the wires that they (and we) used to implant into the antennae, they designed wearable sleeves that you can just slide onto the antennae and attach them with hydrogel. In other improvements, the rescue bug carries an acceleration electrode on its belly. This makes it possible to control its speed too, whereas our RoboRoach backpack could only steer its wearer left or right.

A Short History of the Cyborg Roach

For Sato, this was not a first venture into the world of biobots. His work “Cyborg beetles: The remote radio control of insect flight” pioneered the concept even in 2009.

We joined in the by launching our pilot of the RoboRoach the following year already. It’s a lo-fi yet powerful tool aligned with our mission to make neuroscience available to everyone. A whole host of other scientists have also been on it since, with more or less success.

Backyard Brains RoboRoach in action

Even though we primarily designed our RoboRoach for the college classroom, it’s always been open-ended like all of our kits. The backpack that we built isn’t just a receiver. Through the roach’s antennae, it sends a small pulse akin to the sensation the roach gets when it detects potential danger. This pulse triggers the flight response, making the roach instantaneously change its direction in order to flee. In effect, the technology taps into the insect’s natural escape mechanism that helps it stay safe in the big world of predators, from lizards to roach-averse humans. But it also hopes to employ this instinct by packing electrodes into the tiny yet sturdy body that can easily slip through cracks and tunnels to transmit loads of data back onto the surface.

It’s the same deep brain stimulation technology that’s either in research or is already being deployed for treating diseases like Parkinson’s. Even though there’s still no cure, such tech can significantly improve quality of life with the people affected. Getting a chance at a hands-on experience with this tech at around $150 wasn’t just a good marketing pitch. It actually got many people into neuroscience!

Plus, it got them thinking about the immense application potential. Just hear it from Olivier, our then-intern and one of the many youngsters who helped us improve the gear by honing its directional control. “I hope that my research will allow people to use cockroaches to go into places where humans cannot such as collapsed infrastructure and places with radiation levels that are dangerously high to humans,” he wrote on our blog back in 2014. And it just so happened that this junior in neuroscience actually put himself on a list of many scientists who will soon have made it possible to save many lives from devastating earthquakes in the future!

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