Electronic Backpacks Turn Beetles into Rescue Cyborgs

A team of engineers developed cyborg beetles that are a potential alternative to remote controlled drones. By hard-wiring the beetles, the researchers from UC Berkeley and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University were able to control their flight remotely. The study demonstrates that wireless sensors can help answer fundamental questions in the larger scientific community. The project also revealed new information about the beetles’ biology. During the project, the researchers gained new information about the muscles that are used to steer flight, and then they used that knowledge to make the beetles’ remote-controlled turns even more precise.

In the study, the team strapped tiny computers and wireless radios onto the backs of giant flower beetles. The electronic backpack was built with off-the-shelf materials that cost less than ten dollars. It included a microcontroller, a wireless receiver, and a transmitter. Electrodes were connected to the beetle and a microchip containing thousands of transistors was attached using harmless organic beeswax. During test flights, wireless signals were transmitted to the beetle every millisecond, directing it to take off, change direction, or hover. The researchers recorded neuromuscular data while the beetles flew untethered in a closed room equipped with 3-D motion-capture cameras.

A lightweight 3.9-volt lithium battery provided enough power to last an entire day, but the researchers say the system could soon be powered by “sustainable sources such as energy scavenged from ambient radio waves.” Additional future plans include adding a small microphone and thermal sensors. The next generation of cyborg beetles could be used in search-and-rescue missions to safely explore inaccessible areas. The study published on March 16 in the journal Current Biology.

Source: NTU | Imperial Valley News | Photo by Tat Thang Vo Doan and Hirotaka Sato/NTU Singapore