Singapore — The pesky cockroach’s ability to squeeze through practically any gap and infiltrate establishments is now being transformed into a life-saving advantage with the help of a technological backpack.

A team led by Associate Professor Hirotaka Sato at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) managed to create a 5.5-gram backpack equipped with sensors, which a Madagascar hissing cockroach would then carry.

Coined as cyborg bugs, the add-on device enables the critters to detect and warn others of the presence of gases like carbon dioxide.

According to Assoc Prof Sato’s profile at Research Gate, there is still a long way to go before artificial mini robots are really used for search and rescue missions in disaster-hit areas.

Complications such as the device’s power consumption, obstacle-avoidance systems, and the computation load of the locomotion remain.

However, the recent study featuring the first-ever insect-computer hybrid system emerges as an alternative solution.

The system can be used for search and rescue missions as it is capable of autonomous navigation and detecting human presence in an unstructured environment.

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Researchers were able to pair a customised navigation control algorithm with the insect’s intrinsic navigation capabilities for exploring and manoeuvring complex terrains.

Meanwhile, an infrared camera attached to the backpack helps rescuers detect human presence at the site.

It was mentioned that the low power consumption of the device allows it to operate for extended periods, with potential for application in real-life missions.

Furthermore, Madagascar hissing cockroaches can reportedly withstand up to 10 times more radiation than humans, survive up to a week without their heads, live around two to five years, and run at a speed of 200 mph (about 50 body lengths of itself in just one second).

The study was started four years ago, in partnership with Singapore’s Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) and engineering firm Klass Engineering and Solutions.

The team estimates about 500 cyborg bugs are needed to cover a search-and-rescue site of roughly five sq km.

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“Singapore was the first country to dispatch their rescue team to Japan when the big earthquake hit (north-east Japan) on March 11, 2011,” said Assoc Prof Sato to The Straits Times.

“I was awarded Nanyang Assistant Professorship in the same year, and with the support from NTU, I started my cyborg robot research.”

In other news, NTU’s School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences Associate Professor Rainer Dumke and Assistant Professor Tomasz Paterek were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in 2019 for discovering that cockroaches don’t use magnetic particles for navigation.

On top of providing new information on the insect’s biology, the research is said to point to designs for biologically-inspired sensors. /TISG

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ByHana O