Get Ready for the Insect-Cyborg Apocalypse

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An army of insects can reach into places humans and machines may not be able to access, which is why creating bug-sized robots represents an appealing kind of drone technology. One scientific team created the best of both worlds when it made a beetle walk by using a remote control. Researchers believe these remote-controlled bugs work better than mechanical drones.

How’d They Do That?

To control how beetles walk, scientists first had to study how the insects move naturally, using slow-motion video and bug dissection. Once they understood how a beetle walks, researchers programmed a special chip that sends signals to tiny electrodes. These electrodes attach to the front legs of the insects. The team was then able to control how the giant flower beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, walks.

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Researchers controlled a three-legged gait, in which the middle leg on one side goes down while the front and back leg goes up. The other walk was a gallop, a gait that occurs when the two front legs move in sync with each other. The team also controlled the speed of the walk and the length of each step. The beetles used for the experiments lived out natural lives after scientists removed the electrodes from their muscles.

Why’d They Do That?

The science team wanted to show the advantages of using insect cyborgs as opposed to fully automated machines. The bugs use their own power sources, meaning the energy they get from their food, rather than battery power. The giant flower beetles have bodies large enough to accommodate the mechanical implants, which removes the need to create expensive nanotechnology versions of completely electronic insects.

Instead of manufacturing minuscule sensors, gears and servos to propel robots, all engineers need is a tiny backpack outfitted with a microchip, small battery and electrodes. The study of insect movements, biology, neurology and muscle anatomy is already advanced, which means researchers don’t need to create entirely new scientific and engineering principles for tiny mechanical bug parts. The backpack sends information to a computer so engineers can study the muscular movements of the insects, and these tiny packs don’t weigh a lot or hinder the movements of the insects.

The backpack consists of several parts, including a small radio device. Once scientists wired the backpack to the electrodes and the muscles, the rest was up to the bug’s own anatomy. These components cost just $100, while a fully mechanical robotic bug costs about $10,000.

First Flying, Then Walking

In early 2015, this same research team used remote control technology to make the giant flower beetles fly. In the initial research of flying beetles, engineers hypothesized that the bugs could help us explore small nooks, cracks and crannies in collapsed buildings. Remote-controlled beetles can search for survivors using heat sensors or tiny microphones, so these experiments have applications in search-and-rescue missions.

The flying-beetle experiment had the same basic physical setup as the experiment with walking beetles. Scientists discovered the precise muscles these beetles use to fly, which was not previously known in insect anatomy. The remote-control beetles were able to turn left and right, hover and take off. Once scientists knew how to make the bugs fly, they proceeded to experiment with the process of walking.

Future research may involve adding sensors to the backs of cockroaches. A remote control chip could program an insect’s movements to go towards the sounds of a human voice. Once the bug finds a living human, a tracking device within the backpack could give rescuers the location of any potential victims.

This technology is still in the design stages, so don’t expect to see remote-controlled bugs invading a disaster area any time soon. The feat of controlling an insect represents a major scientific accomplishment that could lead to more advanced animal-machine cyborgs in the distant future. While you wait for the bug cyborgs, watch these two beetles fight it out for territorial supremacy.

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