Cyborg Beetle: ‘Insect-Computer Hybrid’ Controlled Through Nervous System

cyborg beetle computer NTU singapore
The giant flower beetles used in a study at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University could be remotely controlled by stimulating muscles. NTU Singapore

An “insect-computer hybrid” has been developed by scientists, allowing them to take control of living insects by electronically stimulating their nervous system.

Researchers from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University created the remote-controlled insects by strapping tiny computers and wireless radios to the backs of giant flower beetles.

The study, published on Wednesday in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, describes how insects are “nature’s ready-made robot platforms.” Through electrical stimulation, the researchers were able to control the walking gaits and speeds of beetles.

“To the best of our knowledge, this paper represents the first demonstration of living insect locomotion control with a user-adjustable walking gait, step length and walking speed,” the paper’s abstract states.

The scientists recognize that the limited lifespan of insects is an obvious disadvantage compared to battery-powered miniature robots. However, a couple of significant advantages are also given.

Firstly, the insect-computer hybrid requires no assembly other than mounting the miniature computer and radio device and implanting wire electrodes into the appropriate neuromuscular sites.

Secondly, most of the power is provided by the insect, while advances in biofuel cell technology could see the electronics powered by energy harvesters embedded in the insect.

It is not yet clear what the cyborg insects will be used for, though previous studies involving tracking devices attached to cockroaches cited the potential for use in disaster areas, allowing them to search for and locate humans trapped in earthquakes and building collapses. Their small size could also potentially make them useful in surveillance situations.

“Compared with existing insect-computer hybrid robots in which the control of walking speed and gait is impossible, the ability to monitor the robot’s walking speed and walking gait would enable it to complete more complicated tasks,” the paper concludes.

“Such regulation of the beetle’s leg motions at predefined sequences and durations should significantly contribute to the future development of animal-computer hybrid robots.”