[FEATURED NEWS] Foe Today, Friend Tomorrow – Cockroaches Could Save Your Life

A chaotic sight unfolds as a tunnel caves in, leaving huge piles of broken concrete slabs, thick steel beams and construction wreckage in the wake of the disaster. Frontline responders work feverishly to locate and rescue casualties, hoping to pull survivors from the rubble. The remaining structure risks a further collapse and threatens to hamper the ongoing search and rescue mission.

At this moment, hundreds of cockroaches scurry into the grim debris. These are not your typical household pests. Equipped with a tiny chip and battery ‘backpack’ on their abdomens, these cockroaches are on a mission to hunt for survivors buried beneath the rubble.

This scenario of deploying cyborg cockroaches to save lives could soon be a reality. Juxtaposed with today’s methods, it will be a serious game-changer for frontline responders.

The idea to use cyborg cockroaches in search and rescue missions is a shared vision between Associate Professor Hirotaka Sato from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his partners, HTX and Klass Engineering and Solutions.

Prof Sato_webstoryProf Sato pictured with the cyborg cockroach (Photo: HTX)

The idea of deploying mini manmade robots for search and rescue missions has been proposed for many years, but there are challenges to surmount. For example, the consumption of huge amounts of power for navigation which might limit the bot to only operate for an estimate of three to five minutes. That would not be feasible for search and rescue missions which could go on for hours or even days on end.

In search of an alternative solution to aid search and rescue missions, Prof Sato explored the option of using cyborg cockroaches. Cockroaches made a good fit as they are hardy, nimble and small enough to crawl through crevices to navigate through obstacles.  

Mr Ong Ka Hing, Deputy Director, Ground Systems, Robotics, Automation & Unmanned Systems Centre of Expertise in HTX, explained the significance of this research: “Search and rescue teams battle threatening situations in a race against time to seek out survivors during disaster rescue. To augment the Home Team's capabilities in such missions, HTX is working with Prof Sato to explore the deployment of a team of insect-hybrid robots (or cyborgs) in the future to navigate small and tight spaces that may be dangerous for, and inaccessible to, humans.”

Cyborg cockroach infographic 1

Cyborg cockroach infographic 2Cyborg for search & rescue missions (Infographic: HTX)

The cyborg cockroaches will be sent on search and rescue missions with a ‘backpack’. The tiny chip in its backpack contains a suite of on-board devices, including an IR camera, a microphone, environmental sensors and navigation sensors. Operating the cyborg cockroaches is a surprisingly easy task. As the cockroaches have an intrinsic ability to manoeuvre through obstacles – it takes a simpler hardware and control algorithm compared to their artificial counterparts. To control the direction the cockroaches move in, electrical signals are sent to its nerve cells, inducing it to turn right when the left cercus is stimulated, and vice versa.

As cockroaches navigate through the rubble, the IR camera captures and processes the images collected. The IR camera’s machine learning algorithm detects thermal images of humans, successfully identifies human presence and reports the results to frontline responders at the command centre in real-time. This allows the entire rescue process from human detection, to location identification, to the deployment of frontline responders to be a seamless transition with no time wasted, preserving the best chances for survivors to escape their perilous ordeal. 

Prof Sato and team_webstoryThe research team from NTU supporting Prof Sato in his research. (From L to R) Li Rui, Chong Bing Sheng, Tran Ngoc Phuoc Thanh, Le Duc Long, Lin Qifeng, Kai Kazuki, Prof Sato. (Photo credit: HTX)

Heartened by Singapore’s prompt response to lend a hand in disaster relief operations after a devastating earthquake struck Japan in 2011, Prof Sato wanted to play his part in advancing Singapore’s search and rescue capabilities using his technology. He shared: “Singapore was the first country to dispatch their rescue team to Japan when the big earthquake hit on March 11, 2011. Since then, I have been seriously motivated to use my technology to contribute to Singapore's rescue mission.”

While Singapore may be spared from natural disasters, such as earthquakes and typhoons, frontline responders stand ready to respond to the challenges of man-made disasters in our highly urbanised environment. One might recall incidents such as the collapse of Hotel New World and Nicoll Highway cave-in. The Home Team’s frontline responders are also deployed to render humanitarian assistance to countries hit by major disasters.

Mr Ong added: “Deploying cyborgs for saving lives will protect our frontline responders and, at the same time, improve the agility and efficiency of Home Team operations. The ability to mass deploy at will significantly increases the odds of a successful mission and will surely boost the morale of the responders on the ground. We are glad to have like-minded partners like Prof Sato join us in our mission to advance science and tech to save lives.”

The potential of cyborg cockroaches should not be underestimated. While small in size, these cockroaches could have an inordinate impact in transforming the landscape of disaster rescue operations.