SINGAPORE: Believe it or not, a cockroach may actually help save your life one day. And no, we’re not talking here of the dirty, disgusting creepy crawlies but robot roaches specifically designed to get to very small areas when natural disasters such as earthquakes strike in order to find survivors.

At the Milipol Asia-Pacific and TechX Summit, currently at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre from through April 5, ten such roaches were featured.

They were designed by Professor Hirotaka Sato, the Provost’s Chair in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and developed by the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) with NTU and Klass Engineering and Solutions.

“How can we accelerate search and rescue efforts in disaster zones, especially for the first 48 hours which are the most crucial?” NTU wrote in 2022, explaining that the cyborg insects that could help detect signs of life autonomously were being developed.

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Photo from www.ntu.edu.sg

The university noted that at that point, Professor Sato had been working on cyber-insects for 15 years and had previously demonstrated control of a flying cyborg beetle.

“Now, instead of controlling the insects’ movements by remote control, he has found a way to turn them into autonomous cyborgs, through an electronic backpack with sensors that can detect life signs such as movement, carbon dioxide emissions, and heat signatures in rubble,” it added.

The professor was inspired by the March 2011 earthquake in Japan, having been in Tokyo at the time. The disaster eventually claimed the lives of 18,000 people, and while watching search-and-rescue missions, the idea of developing technology that would save people began to take root in him.

The solution he came up with was a cyborg insect that could go through rubble to look for victims.

“He imagined a swarm of live creatures scurrying through the rubble, controlled when necessary by remotely operated electrodes implanted in the insects’ nervous systems. The creatures would carry mounted sensors capable of identifying survivors, along with transmitters to signal their location to rescue workers,” reads a Dec 2023 article in Nature.

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The insect Prof Sato chose to as his model is a Madagascar hissing cockroach, which grows up to 6 centimeters. His model, however, carries an infrared camera as well as a processor that can detect the living.

“Sato’s team can remotely steer the insects left, right, and forwards, or leave them to autonomously navigate to programmed destinations. The researchers are now refining the tracking and communication systems required for the cyborg creatures to be able to tell rescuers where to find people who are in need of help.” /TISG