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Scientists working to make cyborg cockroaches "practical reality"

Part insect, part machine – roboroach to the rescue! Researchers say that remote-controlled cyborg insects could be used to inspect hazardous areas or monitor the environment.

Ruben was a cockroach captured for scientific experiments and turned into a cyborg. Upon his eventual escape, Ruben decided to use his robotic powers for good. That was the premise of RoboRoach, a Canadian kids' show that ran for two seasons in the early 2000s.

It is now also a real-life fact, apparently. A team of researchers at RIKEN institute in Japan have engineered actual roboroaches. It is unclear whether the series inspired the research at all, but these robobugs, just like Ruben, were not built to act with free will either.

For cyborg insects to be practical, handlers must be able to control them remotely for long periods of time – which, according to researchers, was easier said than done. Eventually, they found a way by attaching a solar cell to a rechargeable battery that powers a wireless control module. It sits on a cockroach like a tiny backpack.

"Keeping the battery adequately charged is fundamental – nobody wants a suddenly out-of-control team of cyborg cockroaches roaming around," RIKEN said and was probably not wrong.

The researchers used Madagascan cockroaches for their study, which was published by npj Flexible Electronics, a scientific journal. Approximately 6cm long, they have a wider body surface to attach all the equipment needed to control their legs remotely – and turn them left or right.

The study showed that despite all the mechanics they had to carry, cyborg cockroaches could still move freely thanks to ultrathin electronics and flexible materials used in the design. The rigid part of the built could be stably mounted on a cockroach's thorax for more than a month.

"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," lead researcher Kenjiro Fukuda said.

Since abdominal deformation is not unique to cockroaches, the same design could be adapted to other insects, including flying ones – like cicadas.

Live bugs were used for this experiment as opposed to a field of research that scientists at Rice University in Texas recently dubbed "necrobotics" after repurposing a body of a dead spider as a mechanical gripper.

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