Remote Controlled Bug-Bots Could be First Responders of the Future

Scientists studying how beetles steer themselves in flight gather research that may have implications far beyond understanding bug biology

cyborg beetle
Researchers strapped electronics onto giant flower beetles to better understand how they direct themselves during flight. Tat Thang Vo Doan and Hirotaka Sato, NTU Singapore

A team of researchers from University of California Berkley and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University had a seemingly simple goal—they wanted to better understand how beetles steer their bodies while in flight. But they ended up with a much more futuristic result, as they outline in a study published in Current Biology. Not only did they get a better grasp of insect biology, but they ended up with cyborg bugs whose movements can now be precisely directed via remote control.

Previous studies have evaluated beetles’ flight mechanics primarily when the insect was tethered, which likely interfered with its natural motions. But recent advancements in computer and communication technologies have allowed scientists to use "ultra-small, radio-enabled neuromuscular recorders and stimulators"—tiny electronics—to monitor beetles’ biology in unrestricted flight.

The research team’s investigation zeroed in on a tiny muscle that was once assumed to simply help open and close the bug’s wing: they suspected it played a role in directing minute movements in flight. To get a better idea of just how that muscle functioned, they outfitted giant flower beetles with a mini-electronic system.

Popular Science’s Kelsey D. Atherton breaks down the team’s approach:

[. . .] they strapped a small backpack weighing 1/20th of an ounce onto the beetles, which themselves weigh about 6/20th of an ounce. The backpack contained a battery, wireless transmitter, and electrodes that connect to the beetle's flight muscles and optic lobes. By stimulating the muscles with electrodes, the researchers were able to get more controlled turns in flight.

The scientists recorded, as one release stated, “neuromuscular data as the bugs flew,” allowing the team to accurately identify the parts of the insect’s biology responsible for small directional movements in flight. And while this isn’t the first time scientists have designed remote-controlled beetles, the anatomical discovery allowed by this round of research opens new doors for advanced cyborg bugs that can be more precisely controlled.

The advancement means we may be closer than ever to using the technology for something beyond the lab. The researchers “hope steerable beetles like this could someday be used in rescue operations where flying through narrow places would be too dangerous for humans,” writes Atherton. It’s already been proposed that computer-connected cockroaches perform the same kind of work. 

So maybe, as science fiction has foretold, cyborgs will be coming for you in the future—but it might just be to save your life, rather than end it. 

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