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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

$5 Million Roach: A Bionic Vermin

TOKYO -- 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 minicameras could be used for a variety of 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 microrobotics team and biologists at Tsukuba University, a leading science center in central Japan.


Researchers breed and select roaches to equip with hi-tech "backpacks," removing wings and antennae and attaching pulse-emitting electrodes in their place.


With a remote, researchers send signals to the electrodes, making the roach turn left, turn right, scamper forward or spring backward.


Over three years, researchers have reduced the weight of the backpacks to 2.8 grams, or about twice the weight of the roaches themselves.


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


Holzer jolts a roach with an electric pulse to make it keep to a 2.5 centimeter-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.


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.''