Invasion of the (Insect) Cyborgs!

Though our technology grows more and more advanced, it still has a hard time measuring up to evolution. Not even the most skilled robots can respond to dynamic situations with the ease that the simplest of lifeforms can. Miniaturization provides even more complications for robotics. That’s why, if you want a small and adaptive robot, it may be easier to stand on the shoulders of nature. Scientists have been doing just that: Transforming insects into remote-controlled cyborgs.

Image by Alper Bozkurt

Image by Alper Bozkurt

Insect Cyborgs

There’s more than one way to make a cyborg insect, and more than one research group developing them. When I was working on my graduate degree at North Carolina State University (NCSU), I encountered one of these teams. They had learned how to remote control cockroaches by hijacking the roaches’ sensory systems. A roach has a variety of ways to get information about its environment. It can sense physical obstacles in its path using its antennae. It can detect air movement around it using sensory organs called cerci, located along its abdomen. An approaching predator might stir the air, so roaches have a lot of motivation get moving when their cerci tell them that something is coming.

NCSU researchers carefully implanted wires into the antennae and cerci of the roaches. When electrical impulses were transmitted along the wires, the roaches could be tricked into thinking they were sensing things that weren’t there. Activating the cerci makes the roach think something is sneaking up on them from that side, so they’ll move away. Sending impulses to the antennae is like using reins on a horse, convincing the roach that its path is blocked and causing it move in the preferred direction. The electrical implants don’t force the roach to move; rather they trick it into thinking that there is only one safe path forward.

Image by Nanyan Technological University

Image by Nanyan Technological University

It’s more complicated to manipulate a flying insect, but people are figuring it out. Beetles are ideal for an aerial insect cyborg. They are strong, able to carry much bigger electronic payloads than other similarly-sized insects. The commercially-available giant flower beetles were the subject of choice for UC Berkeley and Singapore’s Nanyan Technological University (NTU).  

First, they strapped small microchip backpacks onto the beetles and used them to record which muscles were used in flight. Once they’d identified likely targets, they moved onto the cyborg backpacks. Each backpack contained a transmitter, a battery, and electrodes which attached to the beetle’s flight muscles and sensory organs. They were able to make the beetle take off, hover, and turn from side to side. While they don’t yet have perfect control, it’s another step down the path to creating tiny insect drones.

Recently, NTU has once more made news with their insect cyborgs. They moved from the air back to the ground, but they weren’t content with merely tricking insects into walking in the right direction. While you can generally direct a cockroach by making it think there’s a predator on one side or a wall on another, the method has limitations. You can’t actually control how fast the insect is moving, and it has other reliability problems. It was time to get more precise.

Rather than manipulating the insect’s senses, researcher Hirotaka Sato wired the leg muscles of the beetles. Each beetle was set up with eight pairs of electrodes, controlling eight muscles in the beetle’s front legs. By transmitting electrical impulses, they could make the legs lift, lower, extend, or retract.

They developed programs that mimicked the natural gait of the beetles, applying them electronically to precisely control the beetle’s step length and speed. For now, they only control the front legs. In the future, they aim to command all six.  

There are a lot of different ways that these insects could someday help society. One big potential benefit is the use of remote-controlled insects to search out disaster survivors. They could skitter around looking for survivors in places where rescuers are unable to reach. They could even carry small heat detectors or microphones. The best part about this method is that once the technique is perfected, it’s actually very cheap to make an insect cyborg. Someday, cockroaches could join the front line of search and rescue operations.

Of course, there are darker sides to their application as well. Insect cyborgs could also make the perfect spies. Everyone knows how hard it is to keep creepy crawlies out of the house. In the future, some of those bugs could be bugged and carrying surveillance equipment. Flying insect drones would be exceedingly hard to detect, especially at night when many insects are most active. For better or for worse, insect cyborgs are coming!

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow