Scientists in Singapore have created an “insect-computer hybrid legged robot” using live beetles.
Cyborg beetles are remotely controlled through wires attached to their bodies that stimulate and jerk their wing muscles during flight, directing them toward a target.
A controversial project is aiming to use beetles in place of robots in search and rescue missions following major disasters.
An army of cyborg beetles could be directed to finding people in awkward hard to access environments.
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Researchers fitted giant flower beetles, which measure two inches long and weigh around 0.3 ounces, with radio transmitter backpacks and wired them to their limbs.
This allowed them to electrically stimulate muscles in the insects’ legs so they could control their walking speed, gait and direction.
It builds on earlier research published last year in which the same team showed they could control the beetles while in flight by stimulating their wing muscles.
This allowed them to get the beetles to take off, hover, turn left or right and then land again on demand.
The technology could eventually lead to the insects being used to crawl through rubble to help search for survivors following disasters or to allow security services to conduct covert surveillance of criminals or terrorists.
Writing in the journal Royal Society Interface, Professor Hirotaka Sato, a mechanical engineer at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who led the research, and his team said: ‘We have constructed an insect-computer hybrid legged robot using a living beetle.
‘By varying the duration of the stimulation sequences, we successfully controlled the step frequency and hence the beetle’s walking speed.
‘To the best of our knowledge, this paper presents the first demonstration of living insect locomotion control with a user-adjustable walking gait, step length and walking speed.’
Many robotics researchers have turned to insects for their inspiration when designing machines that can navigate rough terrain and squeeze into tight spots.
But they have yet to be able to compete with the ability of living insects.
This led Professor Sato and his colleagues to turn to attempts to control the real creatures using wireless backpacks that deliver tiny pulses of electrical current into the insect’s muscles.
Several other research groups have also taken a similar approach, showing they can control the movement of cockroaches along with several other species of large beetle.
The US Military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has also been funding extensive research into the creation of cyborg insects.
Professor Sato’s work uses the giant flower beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, which are native to tropical areas of Africa.
To turn them into cyborgs, the researchers implanted eight electrodes into eight different muscles of the living insects’ front legs through their touch cuticle exoskeleton.
Tiny silver wires were inserted through holes made using a pin before being soldered into place and then attached to a tiny circuit glued to the back of the beetles.
This generated gentle electrical currents on demand and allowed the researchers to issue the commands using a wireless remote control.
EWWW... REMOTE CONTROLLED COCKROACHES ARE COMING Cockroaches are perhaps not the first creatures you would want scuttling around the place spying on you, but their amazing ability to survive in even the most unlikeliest of places has made them appealing cyborgs. Researchers have attempted to manipulate the movements of the insects by stimulating their antennae, tricking them into thinking they were meeting obstacles and needed to avoid them. More recent research has also used little backpacks, weighing 0.007lbs (3g), for the bugs, implanting electrodes into their nervous systems. With this, scientists were able to control the bug correctly around 60 per cent of the time. In November 2014, researchers at North Carolina State University fitted cockroaches with electrical 'backpacks' complete with tiny microphones to detect the faintest of sounds. The idea is that cyborg cockroaches, or 'biobots', could enter crumpled buildings hit by earthquakes, for example, and help emergency workers find survivors. In this case the 'backpacks' control the robo-roach's movements because they are wired to the insect's cerci - sensory organs that cockroaches usually use to feel if their abdomens brush against something. By electrically stimulating the cerci, cockroaches can be prompted to move in a certain direction. In fact, they have been programmed to seek out sound. One type of 'backpack' is equipped with an array of three directional microphones to detect the direction of the sound and steer the biobot in the right direction towards it.
They demonstrated they were able to change the walking gait of the beetles, control the length of their strides and also their walking speed.
Tests showed they could encourage the insect to gallop, walk in double time and use a tripod walking gait.
Professor Sato said: ‘Beetles are ideal study subjects because they can carry relatively heavy payloads.
‘We could easily add a small microphone and thermal sensors for applications in search-and-rescue missions.
‘With this technology, we could safely explore areas not accessible before, such as the small nooks and crevices in a collapsed building.’
The researchers are now hoping to combine the control systems to produce cyborg beetles that can be remotely controlled on the ground and in the air.
They hope it may then be possible to fit sensors like cameras onto the backs of the creatures.
But they admit they still face challenges, such as ensuring the batteries carried by the creatures can last.
Currently the beetles are powered using a 3.9 volt micro lithium batter, which is enough to last an entire day.
Professor Sato said: ‘In the future, the overall rig may not even use batteries. It could be powered from sustainable sources such as energy scavenged from ambient radio waves.’
A recent project funded by Case Western Reserve University in the US showed it may be possible to use the biology of the insects own body chemistry to produce energy.
They showed putting enzymes into cockroaches could allow them to break down complex molecules they use to store energy after eating to generate electrons to produce a current.
This means the cyborgs can continue to run for several days rather than just a couple of hours.
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