Page last updated at 09:14 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 10:14 UK

Remote controlled bugs buzz off

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

One of the cyborg beetles
Three varieties of beetles have been used in the project

A Pentagon-sponsored project to control flying insects remotely has sent ripples of excitement across the scientific pond.

Part insect, part machine, the "cyborg beetle" has been tested successfully by its developers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Video footage shows a beetle being "flown" around a room by a man using a laptop.

At one point it is tethered to a transparent plastic plate, and its tiny limbs can be seen twitching in response to the operator's joy stick.

The developers, Michel Maharbiz and Hirotaka Sato, "demonstrated the remote control of insects in free flight via an implantable radio-equipped miniature neural stimulating system", they told the current edition of Frontiers in Neuroscience magazine.

Noel Sharkey, professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the UK's Sheffield University, says that while attempts to control insects such as cockroaches are not new, this is the first time man has managed to remotely control a flying insect.

What intrigues him is the Berkeley project's ultimate military application.

Pupal stage

At Berkeley, electrodes are implanted when the beetle is in the pupal stage of its growth.

CYBORG BEETLES
One of the cyborg beetles
Fitted with three electrodes, a microbattery and a microcontroller
Three beetles used: cotinis texana (2cm long, 0.3g payload), mecynorhina torquata (7cm, 1.8g) and megasoma elephas (20cm, 4.0g)
Project funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

"It's because we have got much better at nanotechnology and making small probes that we are able to do this," Professor Sharkey told the BBC's World Today programme.

"You are plugging electrical devices into its nervous system and then triggering its muscles so that when it is flying, if you put a little bit more zorch into the muscle on the left-hand side, that will flap a bit harder and that will control the direction it is going in."

The team at Berkeley have been using beetles from Cameroon as large as the palm of a human hand, which leaves Professor Sharkey slightly puzzled.

"The electronics is simply too heavy for a smaller beetle to carry," he says.

"They can remotely control its muscles but it can't actually take off and I'm not sure really what they're playing at here.

"You talk about the payload of a flying object such as a plane or model aeroplane, the payload being the amount it can carry while staying in the air.

"Now with these big beetles, they can get the electronics aboard but nothing else. For instance, for this to be useful at all for the military, it would have to have a GPS receiver/transmitter so they could tell what position it was in."

Nor, the professor suggests, would the beetle be much good for surveillance without a camera equipped with a decent-sized lens.

"Other purposes you could use it for - but which would be totally illegal under the current laws of war - would be carrying any kind of chemical or biological weapons, so you could do personal assassinations," he adds.

'Insect couriers'

Cyborg beetles may serve as useful models for "micro air vehicles", the Berkeley team say in their findings.

Orville Wright at the controls of the Wright Flyer, North Carolina, 17 December 1903
You remember the Wright Brothers, you see all those comedy films where they are trying to fly a plane and everyone is laughing at them - it's at that sort of stage
Noel Sharkey
professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the UK's Sheffield University

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which funds their research, has been pursuing a Nano Air Vehicle (NAV).

Set to be extremely small (less than 7.5cm) and ultra-light (less than 10g), this would "provide the warfighter with unprecedented capability for urban mission operations", Darpa says on its website.

The Berkeley scientists suggest that the beetles themselves could serve "as couriers to locations not easily accessible to humans or terrestrial robots".

As well as beetles, they are investigating flies, moths and dragonflies because of their "as-yet unmatched flight capabilities and increasingly well understood muscular and nervous systems".

Professor Sharkey concedes that ten or twenty years from now, such ideas might work.

"It's pretty creepy really," he says, chuckling.

"I'm laughing now but this really has sinister underpinnings. You remember the Wright Brothers, you see all those comedy films where they are trying to fly a plane and everyone is laughing at them - it's at that sort of stage."

Whether or not the US military eventually adds some kind of insect launch or surveillance vehicle to its growing fleet of unmanned aircraft, the Californian project is increasing our knowledge of flight.

"It's actually quite useful to find out about the dynamics of flight and the biomechanics of the insect," says Professor Starkey.

"It's telling the scientists more than it is the military."



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