The NTU team equips cockroaches with ‘backpacks’ that detect signs of life at disaster sites

NTU team equips cockroaches with ‘backpacks’ to watch for signs of life at disaster sites

Cockroaches are often labeled as pests and will often invoke a fight-or-flight response mostly upon seeing them.

However, a research team from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) found a good way to “use” these seemingly pesky creatures.

By equipping Madagascar’s whistling cockroaches with a high-tech “backpack”, researchers were able to detect the presence of gas and even signs of life.

With the sensors, these special cockroaches can help rescuers deployed to disaster sites, reports Times of the Straits (ST).

The NTU team equips cockroaches with a “backpack”

The research, led by Associate Professor Hirotaka Sata at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, began 4 years ago.


It is carried out in partnership with the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) of Singapore and the engineering company Klass Engineering and Solutions.

Professor Sata’s project was to equip a Madagascar whistling cockroach with a 5.5 g “backpack” made up of several sensors. A group of these cockroaches will then be released on a disaster site to help rescuers.


The cockroach species was chosen because of its large size and hardy nature. It would be able to withstand 10 times more radiation than humans and live up to 7 days without a head.

Using a human detection algorithm, the team found that cockroaches, when equipped, can distinguish between human and non-human subjects with 87% accuracy.

For an area of ​​5km2, about 500 of these cockroaches will be needed.

NTU Cockroaches to save victims on disaster sites

Speaking to ST, Prof Sato explained that he was awarded the Nanyang Assistant Professor Chair in the same year that Japan was hit by a severe earthquake in 2011. At the time, Singapore was the first countries to send rescue teams to Japan.

Since then, he had been “seriously motivated” to use his technology to aid Singapore’s rescue missions.

Mr. Ong Ka Hing, deputy director of HTX’s robotic automation and unmanned systems center of expertise, said the deployment of these cockroaches would also protect frontline responders.

Since cockroaches can navigate small and tight spaces that are often inaccessible to humans, this will improve the agility and efficiency of home team operations.

Currently, between 100 and 200 of these cockroaches are housed at NTU’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.


Interestingly, the containers they are housed in are designed to mimic the humidity and temperature of their natural habitat.

Research still in development phase

In the latest prototype, the cockroach is first anesthetized with carbon dioxide. Once the wax from her back has been carefully scraped off, 2 electrodes and a microchip are attached.


Once the cockroach regains consciousness, it will continue to run. However, with the microcomputer connected, it will send electrical signals to direct its movement.

Currently, research is in its development phase, with engineers working to optimize the chip and sensors. Mass production and placing of crisps on cockroaches is still ongoing.

According to Professor Sato, the whole process of making these cyborg bugs should ideally be automated and error-free.

He also hopes that solar and biofuel calls can be used to charge the battery and extend the life of the backpack.

The director of HTX’s Robotics, Automation and Unmanned Systems Center of Expertise, Mr. Cheng Wee Kiang, said they hope to deploy the insects to the field within the next 5 years.

Hope the invention can be deployed soon

With the invention of Professor Sato, it would certainly make search and rescue operations much safer and more efficient.

Plus, we’re happy that they’ve managed to find a good use for cockroaches and move us away from the perception that they’re just pests.

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Featured Image Adapted From New Scientist and Facebook.