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This Cyborg Beetle Could Save Your Life

Mar 20, 2015 11:42 PM EDT
beetle biobot

(Photo : Tat Thang Vo Doan and Hirotaka Sato/NTU Singapore)

Imagine, heaven forbid, that you are stranded in a disaster zone without any way out and without any way of signaling for help. All might seem lost, until you hear a buzzing above your head. No, it's not a rescue plane, nor is it a drone. Instead, it's a beetle, but one sporting a very sophisticated looking backpack. This is a cyborg beetle, and it could very well be the future face of search-and-rescue.

The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley have jointly developed what they are calling a "bio-drone" using a giant flower beetle. The insect, which boasts the perfection in flight that only nature can pull off, can be guided by human hands via remote control.

"Beetles are ideal study subjects because they can carry relatively heavy payloads," explained NTU's Hirotaka Sato. "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."

However, the technology still needs to be refined before we get there. According to a study authored by Sato and his colleagues, the team gained control over the flight of flower beetles subject only after strapping tiny computers and wireless radios onto their backs.

"This is a demonstration of how tiny electronics can answer interesting, fundamental questions for the larger scientific community," added UC Berkeley electrical engineer Michel Maharbiz, the principle investigator for the study. "Biologists trying to record and study flying insects typically had to do so with the subject tethered. It had been unclear if tethering interfered with the insect's natural flight motions."

These little computers solved that problem, recording neuromuscular data as the bugs effortlessly flew, helping the team determine that a muscle known for controlling how beetle wings fold also is a critical organ for steering.

They then were able to develop new backpacks that could tap into that organ, essentially handing researchers the reins on the beetles' flight. You can watch the beetle backpacks in action in the video below. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: Hirotaka Sato/NTU Singapor ]

"In our earlier work using beetles in remote-controlled flight, we showed excellent control of flight initiation and cessation, but relatively crude control of steering during free flight," said Maharbiz. "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."

Interestingly, these aren't even the first bug biobots to have been produced for search-and-rescue. Past research has looked into creating cyborg cockroaches capable of hearing and finding buried disaster victims, and just last year researchers were looking into ways to control the complex flight capabilities of moths.

The results of this latest breakthrough were published in the journal Current Biology.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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