Scientists can steer this cyborg beetle, carrying an electronics backpack, in flight

A giant flower beetle flying with an electronic backpack. Researchers remotely control the beetle’s untethered flight by stimulating a newly discovered steering muscle. Image: Hirotaka Sato/NTU Singapore

Scientists have created a cyborg beetle by attaching an electronic backpack to control the flying insect via a newly discovered steering muscle.

The research by engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) could see beetles used in search and rescue operations to find people in collapsed building.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, showcases the potential of wireless sensors in biological research.

“This is a demonstration of how tiny electronics can answer interesting, fundamental questions for the larger scientific community,” said Michel Maharbiz, an associate professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.

“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.”

Watch the cyborg beetle in flight:

Since the 1800s, the coleopteran muscle was thought to function solely in wing folding. Now science knows the muscle is also used for turning in flight.

The researchers tested the function of this muscle by stimulating it during flight for graded turns.

Experiments were done with Mecynorrhina torquata, or giant flower beetles. They averaged 6 centimetres in length and 8 grams in weight.

The beetle backpack is made up of an off-the-shelf microcontroller and a built-in wireless receiver and transmitter.

Six electrodes are connected to the beetle’s optic lobes and flight muscles. The entire device is powered by a 3.9-volt micro lithium battery and weighs up to 1.5 grams.

“Beetles are ideal study subjects because they can carry relatively heavy payloads,” said Sato, who began the work while he was a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley and has continued the project at NTU.

“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.”

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