Move Aside Drones, Scientists Develop Remote-Controlled Cyborg Beetles

March 31, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Cyborg Beetle
Photo credit: Nanyang Technological University. The 2015 version of the beetle “backpack” is pictured here.

Does this sound a little too "mad scientist" to you?

An insect-computer hybrid has been developed by a team of engineers from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the University of California Berkeley (UCB). By strapping tiny computers and wireless radios to the backs of giant flower beetles (Mecynorrhina torquata), they can take control of the living insects by electronically stimulating their nervous system.

The study, published on Wednesday (March 30) in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, describes how insects are “nature’s ready-made robot platforms.” Through electrical stimulation, the researchers were able to control the walking speed, direction, and stride length. Although there have been examples of remote-controlled cyborg creatures in the past, the researchers claim this marks the first time such detailed walking movements of an insect being controlled by humans.

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“To the best of our knowledge, this paper represents the first demonstration of living insect locomotion control with a user-adjustable walking gait, step length and walking speed,” the authors write in their paper.

The results follow a project conducted with UCB last year, in which the team discovered how to control a beetle’s flight using an electronic ‘backpack.’

So how did they do it? The team first studied the way beetles walk in detail, then developed a system of electrical impulses that could recreate the motion. By injecting the impulses into the legs of the beetles, they could make the beetles walk in one of two different directions, while also adjusting the step length and walking speed.

Once the electrodes were removed, the beetles lived out the rest of their lives as normal. However, the process of controlling the movement of another creature's body definitely raises some ethical concerns. For example, this type of research encourages the thinking of complex organisms as just mere tools, instead of a living creature that deserves respect.

The researchers defend their work by stating that the beetles could have important humanitarian uses one day. Professor Hirotaka Sato, who worked on both projects, said last year to The Independent, “This technology could prove to be an improved alternative to remote-controlled drones as it could go into areas which were not accessible before.”

The cyborg insects could be used in disaster areas, allowing them to search for and locate humans trapped in earthquake and building collapses. Their small size could also potentially make them useful in surveillance situations.

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“Compared with existing insect-computer hybrid robots in which the control of walking speed and gait is impossible, the ability to monitor the robot’s walking speed and walking gait would enable it to complete more complicated tasks,” the paper concludes.

The scientists recognize that the limited lifespan of the insects is an obvious disadvantage compared to battery-powered miniature robots. However, there are some advantages. First, the cyborg insect requires no assembly other than mounting the miniature computer and radio device, and implanting the electrodes into the appropriate muscles. Second, most of the power is provided by the insect. They just need to rest afterwards.

Nevertheless, what these cyborg beetle-drones will be used for still remains to be seen. However, the researchers say their achievements pave the way for future research to improve the accuracy of the beetle’s movements.

What do you think? Is this form of body manipulation, even if it could have humanitarian benefits, going too far? Leave your comments below.


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