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Cyborg beetles

November 29, 2017.

Cyborg Zophobas.

Cyborg Zophobas. © Nanyang Technological University.

The field of robotics is constantly trying to imitate creatures from the animal kingdom, with much effort devoted to attempting to authentically imitate movement patterns. An area of robotics that’s less explored (no doubt due to ethical considerations) is cybernetics, or cyborgs, which are hybrids of living beings and machines. This fascinating field is still in its infancy, like recent work in Singapore to develop a robot that’s half insect, half machine. A backpack of electronics was put on the back of a small beetle, which measured 2.5 cm and weighed half a gram. The “backpack” interfaces with the beetle’s antennae, which, when stimulated by an electric current, activate the beetle’s escape impulse by tricking it into believing that it’s on a collision course with something, making it change its direction. Using a charge from only two coin cell batteries, the mini-cyborg can be controlled for up to 8 hours, covering a distance of over one kilometre at an average speed of 4 centimetres per second.

In an interview with Spectrum, Tat Thang Vo Doan, a specialist in the field of cybernetics, lays out a scenario where this type of cyborg is put to use. “For a disaster scenario, we could release hundreds of flying or crawling cyborg insects to the site, since the unit price would be negligible when mass-produced. The insects can move freely themselves into the collapsed structures . . . Once an insect detects a victim, it will send an alarm to the rescue team. I know that it sounds like science fiction, but we are in fact working on it.”

IEE Spectrum, “Controllable cyborg beetles for swarming search and rescue.”