The world is fast becoming a zoo of mechanical creatures. Roboworms, spiders, BigDogs, even penguins are walking (or crawling) the earth around us. But these are not real cyborg animals. What if you could get your hands on a real-life, remote-controlled critter?
Today, in a paper in a the journal Current Biology, scientists are describing just that. After strapping tiny computers to the backs of giant flower beetles, they were able to control their flight path, essentially turning them into biological drones.
The computer “backpacks” came equipped with a microcontroller, a wireless receiver and transmitter, and six tiny electrodes to stimulate the 3Ax muscle, which is known to help giant flower beetles steer and maneuver their way in the air. If the scientists beamed the backpack instructions to stimulate the 3Ax muscle on the right side, the rate at which the beetle’s right wing flapped changed, causing the critter to veer right. Likewise, when the scientists stimulated the beetle’s left 3Ax muscle remotely, the cyborg turned left. The higher the frequency of the stimulation, the sharper the beetle’s turn was. They caught this all on tape with a high-speed camera:
“In our earlier work using beetles in remote-controlled flight, we showed excellent control of flight initiation and cessation, but relatively crude control of steering during free flight,” said Michel Maharbiz, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the study authors, in a statement. “Our findings about the flight muscle allowed us to demonstrate for the first time a higher level of control of free-flying beetles. It’s a great partnership between engineering and science.”
Or another sign that the robo-apocalypse draws nigh.
Some scientists have already expressed ethical concerns about turning animals into smartphone-controlled contraptions.
This isn’t the first time scientists have morphed an animal into a cyborg. In 2011, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel implanted computer chips into the brains of rats to test out whether these could be used to substitute for a malfunctioning cerebellum, one of the brain regions that coordinates movement and balance. In 2012, scientists at MIT developed a similar system to Maharbiz’s to control moths in flight. And just last year, cockroaches carrying tiny computers on their backs were hailed as next-genertion rescue-and-relief aides.
Although you can now buy a DIY roboroach kit on the internet, most of these other projects are still largely experimental, so it’s a good time to start thinking about how they might harm animals or how they might pave the way for more intimate computer-human interfaces. Cyborg insects might become another tech toy, but they are also an interesting tool for thinking about the unprecedented legal, ethical, and physiological consequences of directly combining living things and human technology.