Researchers Make Cyborg Beetles a Reality

Outfitted with microprocessor-equipped backpacks, scientists can control the beetle’s steps via remote control

Cyborg Beetle
Tat Thang Vo Doan and Hirotaka Sato, NTU Singapore

It’s a matter of perspective: Depending on whether you like insects or not, this new beetle biobot could be awesome or an instant nightmare machine. Regardless of your feelings on the creature, this little cyborg beetle may one day help in search and rescue missions or spy on terrorists.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Nanyang Technical University in Singapore made the bot using a giant flower beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata—a 2-inch insect native to Africa. The team outfitted the beetle with a backpack containing a 1-cm square microprocessor, which they attached to the beetle's shell with beeswax. Electrodes from the backpack are connected to the beetle’s optic lobe and flight muscles, allowing an operator to stimulate those muscles via radio control, causing the beetle to take off, change direction during flight, or hover.

The beetle has been making test flights for over a year, but new tweaks to the system, outlined this week in The Journal of the Royal Society Interfaceallow the operators to control the speed and gate of walking beetles, meaning they could be used for terrestrial drone work as well.

But the most intriguing part of the paper is its discussion of the way insect drones could perform better and cost less than mechanical drones.

“First, unlike man-made legged robots for which many tiny parts, sensors and actuators are manufactured, assembled and integrated, the insect–computer hybrid robots directly use living insects as Nature's ready-made robot platforms,” the authors write in the paper. “The only necessary ‘assembly’ or ‘operation’ to create an insect–computer hybrid robot is to mount a miniature radio device and implant thin wire electrodes into appropriate neuromuscular sites on the insect for electrical stimulation to induce the desired motor actions and behaviours.”

“Insects are just amazing fliers compared to anything we can build at that scale,” Michel Maharbiz, an electrical engineer at Berkeley who is also working on the project, tells WIRED.

The “biobots” are also easier to handle than mechanical drones. Users can let nature take its course rather than constantly monitoring and tweaking man-made drones that might hit objects or lose altitude. Beetles control all that naturally. “By sending a signal to the beetle, we are able to simply change its direction of movement and the beetle will manage the rest,” Hirotaka Soto, one of the leaders of the project, says in a press release.

Currently, the beetle backpack operates with a 3.9-volt micro lithium battery, which lasts roughly a day. But Sato says in the future, the backpack could be powered by environmental sources, like ambient radio waves.

Work on improving the insect drones is ongoing, but Sato points out in the paper that learning how to control the beetle's legs “will significantly contribute to the future development of animal-computer hybrid robots,” saying that in the future dragonflies and cockroaches could be given similar cyborg treatments.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.