Imagine cockroaches, which are one of the worst things about living in the world, being used to save lives instead.
While most of us think of roaches as dirty, invasive pests, it turns out that they may be more beneficial to us than we thought.
They did this by taking one kind of roach, called the Madagascar hissing cockroach, and turning them into "cyborg" bugs that can find living things at disaster sites and detect harmful gases. This was done by a team of researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.
That's what they did with the Madagascar hissing cockroaches. They gave them a "backpack" of sorts that had sensors and an infrared camera inside. It only weighed about 5.5 grams, and it was led by Associate Professor Hirotaka Sato.
Many of these "cyborg roaches" would then be released at the disaster site, where they would help rescue teams and other monitoring groups find survivors or figure out how dangerous harmful substances might be in the air.
And because the Madagascar hissing cockroach is about two centimeters longer than the roaches that live in the area, using the bigger one made a lot more sense.
At the start, Sato worked with the team and Singapore's HTX, as well as engineering company Klass Engineering, to start working on the project together four years ago.
Roaches with sensors were found to be very good at telling humans from non-humans with an 87 percent accuracy rate while the team was making them.
Based on the numbers, the team thinks that 500 sensor-equipped roaches would be needed for a search-and-rescue area of about five square kilometers.
When it comes to how these creatures would fare in a disaster-hit area, Madagascar hissing cockroaches are known to be tough. They can take more radiation than humans and can live for a week without their heads on.
These roaches aren't native to Singapore. They were brought in from somewhere else and then grown in a lab for about four months, which is how long it takes for them to become adults.
In order to put on the backpacks, the roaches are first anesthetized with carbon dioxide. Then, the wax coat layers on their backs are carefully scraped off one by one.
Then, two electrodes and a microchip are put on the backs of the roaches. Soon, they wake up and start running around again.
In the attached backpacks, microcomputers send electrical signals to the roaches' neuromuscular sites so they can move in the right direction.
As for his team, Sato said that his desire to help Singapore's rescue efforts came about after the earthquake that hit Japan in March 2011.
He said in an interview with The Straits Times that Singapore was the first country to send a rescue team to Japan when the big earthquake hit. "In the same year, I was given a Nanyang Assistant Professorship. With the help of NTU, I began working on cyborg robots."
"Since then, I've been really excited to use my technology to help with Singapore's rescue missions."
One of the people in charge of HTX's Center of Robotics, Automation, and Unmanned Systems said that these little bugs could be a good replacement for small robots, which can't be used in search-and-rescue missions because they use a lot of power.
These people could also act as a kind of protection for disaster-relief workers by scouting ahead to see if there are any possible threats.
A team of insect-hybrid robots, or cyborgs, will protect our first responders and make Home Team operations more efficient, Ong said. The robots can move through small and tight spaces that may be dangerous or inaccessible to humans.
To make these robot roaches even better, the team is now optimizing the chips and sensors. They are also working on mass-fitting the roaches.
Also, the manufacturing process should be made more efficient and solar and biofuel cells should be used to keep the backpacks running for longer.
These animals could be used in the real world in five years if everything goes well. Cheng Wee Kiang is the head of HTX's Robotics, Automation, and Unmanned Systems Center of Expertise.
CHONG, CLARA. “S'pore Team Turning Cockroaches Into Life-saving Cyborg Bugs At Disaster Sites.” The Straits Times, Www.straitstimes.com, 6 December. 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/spore-team-turning-cockroaches-into-life-saving-cyborg-bugs-at-disaster-sites.