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HomeScience/TechnologyRobotic engineers are creating cyborg cockroaches, roboflys and more

Robotic engineers are creating cyborg cockroaches, roboflys and more

Inspired by insects, robotic engineers create machines that can aid search and rescue, pollinate plants and detect gas leaks

(Kenjiro Fukuda/RIKEN Thin Film Equipment Laboratory)

Cyborg cockroaches finding earthquake survivors. A “robofly” that detects gas leaks. Flying lightning bugs that pollinate farms in space.

These are not just buzzy ideas, they are becoming reality.

Robot engineers scour the insect world in search of inspiration. Some tie 3D-printed sensors on live hissing cockroaches from Madagascar, while others create fully robotic insects inspired by the way insects move and fly.

Heavy robots are limited in what they can do. Building smaller and more agile robots, similar to how insects move and act, could vastly expand the capabilities of robots.

“When we think about the insect functions that animals can’t do,” said Kevin Chen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at MIT, “that inspires us to think about what smaller, insect-scale robots can do that larger robots can’t. ”

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Most advances are in the research phase, years after commercialization. But they present tantalizing solutions for a range of industries, including emergency relief, agriculture and energy.

The research is speeding up for a few reasons, experts say. Electronic sensors are getting smaller and better, thanks in large part to research into smartwatches. Manufacturing techniques have advanced, making it easier to construct small parts. Small battery technology is also improving.

But several challenges remain. Small robots cannot mimic the workload of a larger robot. While batteries are getting better, they should be smaller and more powerful. Miniature parts that convert energy into robot movements, called actuators, need to become more efficient. Sensors should be even lighter.

“We’re starting to look at how insects solve these problems, and we’re making a lot of progress,” said Sawyer B. Fuller, an assistant professor who directs the Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory at the University of Washington. “But there are a lot of things… that we don’t have yet.”

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Much of the research on insect robots can be broken down into a few areas, researchers said. Some scientists are building a complete robot to mimic the movement and size of real insects, such as bees and lightning bugs. Others place electronics on live insects and control them, essentially creating cyborgs (creatures that have both organic and mechanical aspects). While some are experimenting with a hybrid, they connect parts of a living insect, such as an antenna, to a machine robot.

Robot engineers started looking to insects for inspiration about 10 to 15 years ago. At the time, few research labs studied it. “Ten years ago, I honestly thought it sounded more like science fiction,” Chen said.

But over the years, more researchers have ventured into space, largely as technology advances. Much of the activity has been driven by developments in carbon fibers and lasers, which can create “very fine features and complex structures” on a small scale, Chen added.

Electronic sensors have also gotten better, largely because smartphones and smartwatches have spurred research to create smaller electronic parts.

“When you think about your smartphone, there are so many sensors in there,” Chen said. “You can actually use a lot of those sensors or put those sensors in microscale robots.”

(Video: Kenjiro Fukuda/RIKEN Thin Film Equipment Laboratory)

Kenjiro Fukuda, a researcher at Japan’s Riken Institute Thin-Film Device Laboratory, leads a team attaching 3D-printed sensors to live hissing cockroaches from Madagascar. The sensors function like a small backpack containing solar panels for power; a blue-tooth remote sensor and specialized computers that connect to the cockroach’s abdomen and send small shocks to send it left or right.

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Fukuda imagines that these cyborg cockroaches help in emergency situations, such as an earthquake. Survivors may be in the rubble and difficult to see with the naked eye, he said.

The roaches can be controlled remotely and released into the rubble with carbon dioxide sensors and cameras on their backs to help find people in need of rescue.

“Big people can’t pass under the rubble,” Fukuda said. “Small insects or small robots can do that.”

Fukuda said he could apply this approach to other insects with large shells, such as beetles and crickets. But many improvements need to be made to the battery design and how much power the parts consume before this solution is deployed in real life, he said.

When it comes to cyborg insects, not everyone is thrilled. Jeff Sebo, a professor of animal bioethics at New York University, said he is concerned about how living insects can feel controlled by humans while carrying heavy technology. It’s unclear whether they feel pain or fear from it, he said, but that doesn’t mean people should ignore that.

“We don’t even pay lip service to their welfare or rights,” he said. “We’re not even going through the motion to have laws or policies or review committees so we can half-heartedly try to reduce the damage we’re inflicting on them.”

Chen makes flying lightning bug robots. These are completely robotic machines that mimic the way lightning bugs move, communicate and fly.

Inspired by the way lightning bugs use electroluminescence to glow and communicate in real life, Chen’s team built soft artificial flight muscles that control robotic wings and emit colored light during flight.

This could enable a swarm of these robots to communicate with each other, Chen said, and could be used to pollinate crops in vertical farms or even in space.

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“If I want to grow crops in space, [I want] pollination,” he said. “In that scenario, a flying robot would be much, much more appropriate than directing bees.”

Fuller said he looks at insects when making little robots because it’s much better than relying on his imagination. “You see insects doing crazy things that you just could never do on a human scale,” he said. “We’re just looking at how insects do it.”

(Video: Matt Stone/University of Washington)

(Video: University of Washington)

Fuller’s team is working on a robotic fly. Like the cyborg cockroaches, the flies can be used in search and rescue missions. They can also be released to fly around and look for chemical leaks in the air or cracks in the pipeline infrastructure.

“You open a suitcase and these little robot flies fly around,” he said. “Once you know where the leak is, you can fix it.”

Fuller said he recognizes that there is still a long way to go before his robots can do that. It will be difficult to miniaturize all the sensors, power packs and parts that robots need to move and send data back to teams. It is a huge challenge to make batteries that are small enough but powerful enough to emit the energy needed for robotic functions. Stabilizing robots that can flap their wings and fly, but also wear sensors, will require more design research.

Despite the difficulties, he said scientists are also taking parts of a living insect, such as moth antennae, and attaching them to a robot that could one day read data from them. This hybrid method could be a good place for insect robot researchers, he said.

“I think that’s the way we need to go,” Fuller added. “Take bits of biology that works really well and do the rest robotic.”

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