Meet Japan’s cyborg cockroach, coming to disaster area near you

Japanese researchers demonstrate the ability to mount ‘backpacks’ of solar cells and electronics on the cockroaches and control their motion by remote control

SAITAMA, Japan – If an earthquake strikes in the not too distant future and survivors are trapped under tons of rubble, the first responders to locate them could be swarms of cyborg cockroaches.

That’s a potential application of a recent breakthrough by Japanese researchers who demonstrated the ability to mount “backpacks” of solar cells and electronics on the bugs and control their motion by remote control.

Kenjiro Fukuda and his team at the Thin-Film Device Laboratory at Japanese research giant Riken developed a flexible solar cell film that’s 4 microns thick, about 1/25 the width of a human hair, and can fit on the insect’s abdomen.

The film allows the roach to move freely while the solar cell generates enough power to process and send directional signals into sensory organs on the bug’s hindquarters.

The work builds upon previous insect-control experiments at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and could one day result in cyborg insects that can enter hazardous areas much more efficiently than robots.

“The batteries inside small robots run out quickly, so the time for exploration becomes shorter,” Fukuda said. “A key benefit (of a cyborg insect) is that when it comes to an insect’s movements, the insect is causing itself to move, so the electricity required is nowhere near as much.”

Fukuda and his team chose Madagascar hissing cockroaches for the experiments because they are big enough to carry the equipment and have no wings that would get in the way. Even when the backpack and film are glued to their backs, the bugs can traverse small obstacles or right themselves when flipped over.

The research still has a long way to go. In a recent demonstration, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei used a specialized computer and wireless Bluetooth signal to tell the cyborg roach to turn left, causing it to scramble in that general direction.

But when given the “right” signal, the bug turned in circles.

The next challenge is miniaturizing the components so that the insects can move more easily and to allow for mounting of sensors and even cameras. Kakei said he constructed the cyborg backpack with 5,000 yen ($35) worth of parts purchased at Tokyo’s famed Akihabara electronics district.

The backpack and film can be removed, allowing the roaches to go back to life in the lab’s terrarium. The insects mature in four months and have been known to live up to five years in captivity.

Beyond disaster rescue bugs, Fukuda sees broad applications for the solar cell film, composed of microscopic layers of plastic, silver, and gold. The film could be built into clothing or skin patches for use in monitoring vital signs.

On a sunny day, a parasol covered with the material could generate enough electricity to charge a mobile phone, he said

Scientist Invents Toilet That Turns Human Feces Into Cryptocurrency

“IF WE THINK OUT OF THE BOX, FECES HAS PRECIOUS VALUE TO MAKE ENERGY AND MANURE.”

Toilet Generator

A researcher at a university in South Korea has devised a toilet that turns human waste into power, Reuters reports. As a bonus incentive, each use rewards, uh, poopers with a small amount of digital currency that they can trade in for a coffee or a cup of noodles on campus.

The toilet first pumps your excrement into an underground tank, which means it uses less water right off the bat when compared to a traditional toilet. Microorganisms then break down the waste into methane, a usable source of energy.

In short, it’s a delightful new method of turning sewage into power.

Making Manure

“If we think out of the box, feces has precious value to make energy and manure,” inventor Cho Jae-weon, an urban and environmental engineering professor at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), told Reuters. “I have put this value into ecological circulation.”

The toilet could turn roughly a pound of solid human waste, the average amount a human poops in a day, into an impressive 50 liters of methane gas, according to Cho. That means it can generate half a kilowatt hour of electricity, enough to drive an electric car for three quarters of a mile.

And because its 2021 — a day and age in which nothing is safe from the world of cryptocurrencies — Cho came up with a virtual currency called Ggool, or “honey” in Korean. Every use of the toilet scores you 10 Ggool per day, which can be used to buy stuff on the university’s campus.

“I had only ever thought that feces are dirty, but now it is a treasure of great value to me,” a postgraduate student Heo Hui-jin who’s both earned and spent Ggool, told Reuters. “I even talk about feces during mealtimes to think about buying any book I want.”

Microsoft’s Visual Studio Online code editor is now Visual Studio Codespaces and gets a price drop

Image Credits: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

About a year ago, Microsoft  launched Visual Studio Online, its online code editor based on the popular Visual Studio Code project. It’s basically a full code editor and hosted environment that lives in your browser.

Today, the company announced that it is changing the name of this service to Visual Studio Codespaces. It’s also dropping the price of the service by more than 50% and it’s giving developers the option to run it on relatively low-performance virtual machines that will start at $0.08 per hour.

In today’s announcement, Microsoft’s Scott Hanselman points out that the company learned that most developers who used Visual Studio Online thought of it as being much more than simply an editor in the browser.

“To better align with that sentiment, and the true value of the service, we’re renaming Visual Studio Online to Visual Studio Codespaces. (It’s true what they say, naming is hard!) Do you want a great experience working on your long-term project? Do it in a Codespace. Need to quickly prototype a new feature or perform some short-term tasks (like reviewing pull requests)? Create a Codespace! Your Codespaces are simply the most productive place to code.”

The new pricing will go into effect on May 19, the first day of Microsoft’s (virtual) Build developer conference. These are pretty significant price drops, down from $0.45 per hour to $0.17 for a machine with 4 cores and 8 GB of memory, for example (you also incur some relatively minor storage costs of $0.0088 for using a 64 GB SDD, too).

Hanselman also points out that a lot of developers don’t need quite that much power, so the company is now introducing a Basic plan with a 2-core machine and 4 GB of RAM for $0.08 per hour. Best I can tell, these will go live for around $0.24 per hour today and then see a price cut on May 19, too. Why not launch it at the reduced price? Only Microsoft knows, so we asked and will update this post once they tell us.

Typically, this is the kind of announcement Microsoft would make at its annual Build developer conference. And while some other companies have decided to fully scrap their events and aren’t even hosting a virtual conference, Microsoft is moving full steam ahead with its Build conference in the middle of May. I expect we’ll hear more about how that event will play out in the near future.