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From Everyday Pests to Unlikely Allies, Cockroaches Could Save Your Life in the Future

The sight of a cockroach walking around our home, office or public establishments is an instant turn off. They can easily hide in even the narrowest crevices and easily multiply, making them a health and sanitary nuisance.

Credit: Unsplash

While most of us stock up on cockroach repellant sprays, traps or spend on pest control services to keep them away, a team from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has made one of the most well-known species of cockroaches into an unlikely ally.

On average, an adult Madagascar hissing cockroach is 6cm long, making them longer than local cockroaches. As such, they are big enough for what Associate Professor Hirotaka Sato and his team need in their unique project. Going back to the insect’s ability to easily get inside crevices and other tight spots, Professor Sato’s team believe that this would be a great advantage in their goal to provide rescuers with much-needed aid in disaster sites where time is of the essence.

The cyborg bugs are equipped with a high-tech “backpack” that weighs only 5.5g and contains several sensors to help detect the presence of gases such as carbon dioxide. The rescue cyborg bugs will also have a small infrared camera to help detect signs of life by picking up temperature signatures. Both of these features will be very beneficial to rescue workers.

Credit: New Scientist/Nanyang Technological University

Professor Sato came up with the idea four years ago and has been developing it in partnership with Singapore’s Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) as well as engineering firm Klass Engineering Solutions.

By making use of human detection algorithms, Professor Sato’s team was able to discover that cockroaches are able to differentiate between human and non-human subjects with 87% accuracy.

They estimate that around 500 Madagascar hissing cockroaches turned cyborg bugs are needed to cover a search-and-rescue area of around 5sq kilometres.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Professor Sato shared, “Singapore was the first country to dispatch their rescue team to Japan when the big earthquake hit (north-east Japan) on March 11, 2011. I was awarded the Nanyang Assistant Professorship in the same year and with the support from NTU, I started my cyborg robot research. Since then, I have been seriously motivated to use my technology to contribute to Singapore’s rescue missions.”

Professor Sato has been with the university for the past 10 years and is currently NTU’s Provost’s Chair. He works in areas of mechanical engineering, nano and micro manufacturing and electrochemistry.

According to HTX Robotics, Automation and Unmanned Systems Centre of Expertise Deputy Director Ong Ka Hing, as search and rescue teams are put in difficult and dangerous situations, cyborg bugs are a welcome aid as opposed to state-of-the-art miniature robots. The latter is said to be unable to last long enough during rescue operations as these need a lot of power to operate.

He explained, “deploying a team of insect-hybrid robots (cyborgs) that can navigate small and tight spaces that may be dangerous and inaccessible to humans will protect our front-line respondents and improve the agility and efficiency of Home Team operations.”

Other advantages of using Madagascar hissing cockroaches include being able to withstand 10x more radiation compared to humans and the insects are also able to live up to seven days headless as they can breathe through the spiracles on their sides.

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