Cyborg beetles to the rescue

Reuters News
Posted: May 11, 2015 5:06 PM

By Ben and Gruber

Berkeley, California - In the wake of the devastating Nepal earthquake, researchers are hard at work developing the next generation of search and rescue tools in the hopes of saving more lives in the aftermath of deadly natural disasters. 

At a laboratory in Singapore, a researcher uses a joystick to control the movements of a giant beetle in flight. As the researcher moves his controller left and right, radio waves are sent to a wireless receiver fitted onto the beetle's back, which activates nanowires to stimulate a small muscle in the its wing. Depending on the signal the beetle turns accordingly.  

From a scientific point of view the experiments, led by Hirotaka Sato, have proven a huge success. The scientists found that the muscle in question, which until now was only thought to control a beetles' ability to fold its wings, is actually key to the insect performing precise turns. From a practical point of view it means that we are one step closer to remote controlled cyborg beetles that could search for survivors in disaster zones where it's too dangerous for humans to operate.     

Michele Maharbiz, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California Berkeley, has been at the forefront of cyborg beetle research. For years he's tried to answer a simple question. 

"What things would you have to strip out in terms of genes or in terms neurosystems to be left with a chassis that is effectively a flyable chassis? Why is an insect not a flying robot?, Because it has stuff in there that you would like to knock out and then get yourself a chassis," Maharbiz said.

Maharbiz is referring to a chassis like that found in a car. But while cars were designed with the sole purpose of driving, evolution has hardwired beetles for multiple functions, like mating and eating. All of these need to taken into account when developing a remote controlled beetle.

The researchers have made much progress over the years. They have proven they can control the beetles with stimulation to both the brain and muscles. Maharbiz thinks a combination of both techniques will probably be needed to create an ideal cyborg beetle.

"At a short term practical level I think that we could stand to build controlled flyers at very small scales this way, in other words using the best of electronics and the best of the natural world," he said.

Maharbiz believes this is a combination that could potentially be used to develop better tools for saving lives in the wake of future natural disasters.