Cyborg Insects Take Flight

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Insects that can be remote controlled to spy on others?  A completely robotic fly smaller than a penny?  These are just some examples of what is in the pipeline in the world of insect robotics and neuroscience.  In January we reported on the awesome cyborg beetle…now we followup with a small showcase of how the field of cyborg insects continues to blossom.

As a bit of background, even though some of the material below is exciting, readers should keep in mind that cyborg  insects that can be fully controlled in real world surveillance scenarios still have significant hurdles to overcome.  Getting an insect to turn right or left is one thing.  Getting it to land in a particular spot is much harder.

Another problem with cyborg insects is that they are often too small to carry a substantial amount of onboard components, such as a power source (ie. battery) and video or audio capture devices.  Beetles are large enough to combat this problem somewhat as they are able to carry larger payloads.   One idea to overcome the battery problems is to use the insect’s own motion as the energy source, thereby abandoning the need for a battery.  Yet converting kinetic energy into usable stored potential energy at this scale is a serious challenge.

DARPA is funding a good deal of cyborg insect research for surveillance purposes.  DARPA’s goal is to create cyborg insects that can fly at least 100 meters from their controller and land within 5 meters of a target, then stay put until commanded to leave.

Perhaps the most important aspect of cyborg insect research is not the eventual end product, but rather it is what we are learning in the process about insect brains, neurons, and motor capabilities that may be transferable to several other fields.

The highlight of this post is an excellent video from new scientist that showcases some of the top research in the field, so lets get to it:

Next, we have an update on the DARPA funded cyborg beetle from Michel Maharbiz and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley.  Technology Review recently posted an in depth article on Michel’s work that is worth a read.  One of the exciting techniques utilized by Maharbiz and others is to implant components into the insects during the pupal stage, before the insect matures into its final form.  As the insect grows from pupal to adult, these implanted components become  hidden from view, integrated into the inside of the adult insect.  Here is an excerpt from the article on how the cyborg beetle works:

Stuck to the beetle’s back is a commercial radio receiver atop a ­custom-made circuit board. Six electrode stimulators snake from the circuit board into the insect’s optic lobes, brain, and left and right basilar flight muscles. A transmitter attached to a laptop running custom software sends messages to the receiver, delivering small electric pulses to the optic lobes to initiate flight and to the left or right flight muscle to trigger a turn. Because the receiver sends very high-level instructions to the beetle’s nervous system, it can simply signal the beginning and end of a flight, rather than sending continuous messages to keep the beetle flying.

And now we have something a little different.  This is not a cyborg insect, but rather it is one of the world’s first at scale flying robotic insects from the Harvard Microrobotics Lab.  This tiny robotic fly weighs just 60-milligrams, sports a three-centimeter wingspan, and simulates movements modeled on those of a real fly.  The robot is capable of only primitive flight maneuvers such as flying in a straight line, highlighting the extreme difficulty in recreating nature’s millions of years of evolution.  Regardless, the concept is pretty cool.

The video below is a bit dry, but quite informative for those that want to know more:

Perhaps the biggest name in the field of understanding insect flight is Michael Dickinson at the California Institute of Technology.  We uncovered the following video that describes just a small slice of Dickinson’s industry leading work:

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