By compelling a bug’s legs to move by applying electrical impulses to its muscles, scientists have been able create remote-controlled crawling insects before. The technique is quite simple that you can even buy your own kit to hijack a crawly insect at home. But flying bugs are harder to capture and control.
In 2009, Scientists were able to produce their first remote-controlled beetle. A team from the University of California, Berkeley led by engineer Michel Maharbiz used electrical stimulation to control the beetle’s wings to start and stop flapping, making the beetle go up and down. But without understanding the bug’s steering muscles, their lateral control left something to be desired.
In a new study Entomologists have discovered that those muscles, miniature ones below the wings called, coleopteran third axillary sclerite, believed to be useful for folding the wings back when the bug’s not in flight, found out that it plays a critical role in flying and, in particular, steering.
“As creepy as it sounds, some evil genius planning to take over world domination through an army of remote controlled bugs, but the story I’m interested in isn’t that I want to control an insect in free flight for some nefarious purpose,” says Maharbiz. “It’s really that this kind of technology is very useful as tools to figure out what’s going on in the insect.”
Researchers fitted a giant flower beetle, over two inches long, with a contraption, a microcontroller and a wireless receiver and transmitter weighing as much as a paperclip ( bugs are able to carry cargo equivalent to 20 percent of their weight, so the cargo wasn’t a problem), to illustrate how the muscle steers. The Electrodes fire pulses into the beetle’s muscles—zap the steering muscles with more frequent electrical pulses, and they contract more, making the wing harder. About 25 seconds into the video, you can see how an increase in pulse frequency, from 70 to 90 times a second, forces the beetle into a tighter turn.
The bug in the video can only be steered left or right, but scientists could control it in other directions as well And the better the control gets, the more useful these bugs could potentially be outside the scope of entomological anatomy research.
These remote controlled bugs could be a huge potential to assist in a search and rescue operation. For instance, in the aftermath of an earthquake, FEMA can aid in the rescue operation by outfitting the bugs with temperature sensors to detect body heat of survivors buried deep in the rubble. Just think of all the possibilities these remote controlled insects could be put to good use.
“Insects are just amazing fliers compared to anything we can build at that scale,” Maharbiz says. Engineers are developing their own robotic flyers to do the same thing, like these small flying or crawling robots. But it’s tough to beat the built-in flying biology of a bug.
The potential of this Cyborg bugs are immensely useful, just don’t let the remote control fall in the wrong hands.