Watch a cyborg cockroach navigate a maze

A cyborg cockroach controlled by an electronic backpack, which attaches to its antennae and abdomen without injuring it, could be used for building inspections or search-and-rescue missions.

Electronically controllable cockroaches aren’t new, but all previous work required invasive surgeries to implant an electrode directly into the insect’s nervous system. As well as potentially causing pain, implantation can also damage the cockroach and limit the amount of time that the electronic controls work to minutes or hours.

Now, Hirotaka Sato at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and his colleagues have developed flexible electronic sleeves that slip onto the cockroaches’ antennae and can deliver a signal to guide it in a certain direction. “With this research, we can for operate hours and days probably – long operation is possible,” says Sato.

The electronic sleeves are made from layers of gold and plastic and are fixed in place using ultraviolet light, similar to shrink-wrap plastic that tightens with heat. While the antennae electrodes are used for steering, a third electrode attached to the cockroach’s stomach can make it speed up or slow down.

A diagram showing a backpack worn by a cyborg cockroach

Hirotaka Sato/Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Sato and his team showed they could control the cockroach around an S-shaped track and an obstacle course of random stones. Because the antennae were undamaged and functional while wearing the sleeves, the cockroach could still use them to navigate around the course, as well as receiving information from Sato and his team via Bluetooth.

“Cyborg insects can be used not only for search-and-rescue missions, but also security and hazardous infrastructure inspection,” says Sato.

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