TECH/BIO/FWD: Robo-roach

Alexander Chislenko (
Wed, 15 Jan 1997 15:23:02 -0500

[Not sure I have the rights toforward this, but it's really interesting...]

A step closer to the marriage of nature and technology ...


The Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) -- A big brown cockroach crawls across the table in the
laboratory of Japan's most prestigious university. The researcher eyes it
nervously, but he doesn't go for the bug spray. He grabs the remote.

This is no ordinary under-the-refrigerator-type bug. This roach has been
surgically implanted with a micro-robotic backpack that allows researchers
to control its movements.

This is Robo-roach.

``Insects can do many things that people can't,'' said Assistant Professor
Isao Shimoyama, head of the bio-robot research team at Tokyo University.
``The potential applications of this work for mankind could be immense.''

Within a few years, Shimoyama says, electronically controlled insects
carrying mini-cameras or other sensory devices could be used for a variety
of sensitive missions -- like crawling through earthquake rubble to search
for victims, or slipping under doors on espionage surveillance.

Farfetched as that might seem, the Japanese government has deemed the
research credible enough to award $5 million to Shimoyama's micro-robotics
team and biologists at Tsukuba University, a leading science center in
central Japan.

Money from the five-year grant started coming in this month, and young
researchers are lining up for a slot on Shimoyama's team.

The team breeds its own supply of several hundred cockroaches in plastic
bins. Not just any roach will do. Researchers use only the American
cockroach (Perplaneta americana) because it is bigger and hardier than most
other species.

>From that supply, they select roaches to equip with hi-tech ``backpacks''
-- tiny microprocessor and electrode sets.

Before surgery, researchers gas the roach with carbon dioxide. Wings and
antennae are removed. Where the antennae used to be, researchers fit
pulse-emitting electrodes.

With a remote, researchers send signals to the backpacks, which stimulate
the electrodes. The pulsing electrodes make the roach to turn left, turn
right, scamper forward or spring backward.

Over the past three years, researchers have reduced the weight of the
backpacks to one-tenth of an ounce, or about twice the weight of the
roaches themselves.

``Cockroaches are very strong,'' said Swiss researcher Raphael Holzer, part
of the Tokyo University team. ``They can lift 20 times their own weight.''

The controls, however, still have a few serious bugs of their own.

Holzer jolts a roach with an electric pulse to make it move slightly to the
right and keep to an inch-wide path. Instead, the roach races off the edge
of a table into Holzer's outstretched hands.

``The placement of the electrodes is still very inexact,'' he admits,
setting the bug back on track.

While a backpack-fitted roach can survive for several months, it becomes
less sensitive to the electronic pulses over time -- a big problem if the
bugs are to be used on longer missions.

Holzer is optimistic. ``The technology isn't so difficult,'' he said.
``The difficulty is to really understand what is happening in the nervous

And technology aside, Robo-roach is still, after all, a roach.

``They are not very nice insects,'' Holzer confesses. ``They are a little
bit smelly, and there's something about the way they move their antennae.
But they look nicer when you put a little circuit on their backs and remove
their wings.''

AP-NY-01-09-97 1343EST