I like beetles. Sure, a lot of them are pests but so are politicians and at least you can eat beetles. They make up almost 25% of all known types of animal life-forms. Do we really want to give them even more power over us than they already have? That’s why the news that scientists are turning giant beetles into remote-controlled flying cyborgs is both interesting and disturbing.
An article in the latest edition of Current Biology describes the project by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, to control the fight of giant flower beetles by attaching computers to their backs. The computer consists of a micro-controller, wireless receiver and transmitter, 3.9-volt micro lithium battery and six electrodes for stimulating the flight maneuvering muscle in the wings of the beetle. By sending signals to the controller, the researchers were able to steer the flying beetles and control their flight patterns by forcing them into tighter or wider turns.
Adult giant flower beetles (Mecynorrhina torquata) are hefty bugs, measuring over 3 inches (85 mm) in length and weighing 0.2 ounces (8 grams) or about the weight of a dollar coin. Study lead author Hirotaka Sato explains why they were chosen.
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.
This is not the first experiment to control flying beetles but the first one to use the insect’s coleopteran third axillary sclerite (3Ax) muscle, which the researchers recently discovered is crucial for steering. That gave them precision control not achieved in previous tests, according to Michel Maharbiz, another of the study authors.
Our findings about the flight muscle allowed us to demonstrate for the first time a higher level of control of free-flying beetles. It’s a great partnership between engineering and science.
How about thanking the beetles too, Michel? Make them mad enough to disable the receiver and one of those “areas not accessible before” they explore might be a “small nook” of yours where the sun doesn’t shine.