Researchers are getting closer to converting beetles into remote-controlled cyborg search and rescue vehicles that could prove vital to saving lives in the aftermath of earthquakes. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: At a lab in Singapore, a researcher uses a joystick to control the movements of a giant beetle in flight. As the researcher moves his controller left and right, radio waves are sent to a wireless receiver fitted onto the beetle's back, which activates nanowires to stimulate a small muscle in its wing. Depending on the signal the beetle turns accordingly. From a scientific point of view, the experiment has proven a huge success. The scientists found that the muscle in question, which until now was only thought to control a beetles' ability to fold its wings, is actually key to the insect performing precise turns. From a practical point of a view it means that we are one step closer to remote controlled cyborg beetles that could search for survivors in disaster zones where it's too dangerous for human to operate. Michele Maharbiz from the University of California Berkeley has been at the forefront of cyborg beetle research. For years he's tried to answer a simple question. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MICHEL MAHARBIZ, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ELETRICAL ENGINEERING AND COMPUTER SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-BERKELEY, SAYING: "What things would you have to strip out in terms of genes or in terms neurosystems to be left with a chassis that is effectively a flyable chassis. Why is an insect not a flying robot, because it has stuff in there that you would like to knock out and then get yourself a chassis." A chassis like you would find in a car. But while cars were designed with the sole purpose of driving, evolution has hardwired beetles for multiple functions, like mating and eating. All of these need to taken into account when developing a remote controlled beetle. The researchers have made much progress over the years. They have proven they can control the beetles with stimulation to both the brain and muscles. Maharbiz thinks a combination of both techniques will probably be needed to create an ideal cyborg beetle. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MICHEL MAHARBIZ, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ELETRICAL ENGINEERING AND COMPUTER SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-BERKELEY, SAYING: "At a short term practical level I think that we could stand to build controlled flyers at very small scales this way, in other words using the best of electronics and the best of the natural world." And the combination could prove to be the best tool for saving lives in the wake of future natural disasters.