AsianScientist (Mar. 25, 2015) – Researchers have developed a ‘cyborg beetle’ whose flight can be wirelessly controlled with minimal human intervention. Their study, published in Current Biology, was picked as one of the journal’s best research discoveries, making the cover of the month’s publication.
Mounted on top of a giant flower beetle (Mecynorrhina torquata), the tiny, high-tech micro-processing unit with a built-in wireless receiver/transmitter converts radio signals received remotely into a variety of actions in the beetle.
Signals were transmitted to the beetle’s high-tech backpack every millisecond, directing the beetles to take off, turn left or right, or even hover in mid-flight. The beetles were untethered but flew within a closed room equipped with eight 3-D motion capture cameras to capture movement data.
Unlike typical remote-controlled synthetic drones, there is no need for constant human control as the beetle is able to maintain flight stability on its own. Human intervention is only needed to change the intended direction. The beetle will then take care of the rest of journey, manoeuvring around obstacles and crawling into small confined spaces, up to 100 metres.
“This technology could prove to be an improved alternative to remote-controlled drones as it could go into areas which are not accessible before,” said study lead author Assistant Professor Hirotaka Sato from the Nanyang Technological University.
“For example, it could be used in search-and-rescue missions as it could go into small nooks and crevices in a collapsed building to locate injured survivors.”
The materials used to build the high-tech backpack cost less than S$10 (~US$7) and the electronics are easy to build with mostly off-the-shelf components. It is operated by a microprocessor, which not only combines thousands of transistors onto a 1-cm square chip, but comes with a built-in radio (wireless) receiver.
Although the entire setup is powered by a 3.9 volt micro lithium battery, which provides more than enough power to last an entire day, it would one day operate without it.
“In the future, the overall rig may not even use batteries. It could be powered from sustainable sources such as energy scavenged from ambient radio waves,” said Sato.
For over 200 years, biologists believed that a particular muscle located in between the beetle’s wings—known as the coleopteran muscle—was solely responsible for controlling the folding of wings.
However, this joint NTU-UC Berkeley research project revealed that the muscle was also found to control the beetle’s steering or turning ability.
“Since the 1800s, the beetle’s coleopteran muscle was thought to function solely in wing folding,” said Sato. “Our wireless system allows us to record neuro-muscular movements in natural, free flight and by doing so, we found out that this muscle is also used for steering and turning.”
The new finding thus highlighted the potential for further research to improve the precision of the beetles’ remote-controlled turns, he added.
The article can be found at: Sato et al. (2015) Deciphering the Role of a Coleopteran Steering Muscle via Free Flight Stimulation.
Source: Nanyang Technological University.
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