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Boffins build Cyborg beetles, fly them by remote control

Experiment gives a whole new meaning to 'software bugs'

Video Scientists working at the edge of the creepy have demonstrated fine-grained remote control of critters known as giant flower beetles, with the idea that they could carry payloads into difficult places in activities like search and rescue.

The boffins have shown off their test subjects being instructed to take off, turn and hover all under wireless control, without any tethering wires.

The researchers attached wireless controllers onto the beetles to investigate the function of a muscle, called the “coleopteran third axillary sclerite (3Ax) muscle” that's long been known to be associated with the folding of wings.

By recording neuromuscular data as the bugs flew, the boffins found that the 3Ax muscle is also critical to steering – and that meant by controlling it, the scientists could also get better precision in remotely-controlling the beetles' turns.

In the university's release, Berkeley electrical engineering associate professor Michel Maharbiz says the other important achievement was to get the radio/computer combo small enough that the beetles could fly untethered, without the risk that a wire back to a controller would interfere with their natural flight motions.

To control the six-centimetre, eight gram beetles, the researchers put together an off-the-shelf microcontroller with built-in wireless transceiver. Six electrodes are connected to the Mecynorrina torgata's optic lobe and flight muscles.

With the 3.9V lithium battery, the whole kit weighs under 1.5 grams, and according to Hirotaka Sato of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore (who began the work at Berkeley), there's still enough payload available to add a microphone and thermal sensors.

“With this technology, we could safely explore areas not accessible before, such as the small nooks and crevices in a collapsed building,” Sato says.

The work is being published in the journal Current Biology. ®

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