US University Shows Radio-controlled Live Beetle

Jan 28, 2009
Tsuneyuki Miyake, Nikkei Microdevices
Images of a radio-controlled beetle
Images of a radio-controlled beetle
[ If it clicks, the expanded picture will open ]
The flight experiment
The flight experiment
[ If it clicks, the expanded picture will open ]

The University of California, Berkeley succeeded in the experiment of controlling a live rhinoceros beetle by radio and disclosed the video of the experiment at the MEMS 2009 academic conference taking place in Sorrento, Italy.

Researchers at the university controlled the movement of beetle wings and some other parts using radio signals sent to the six electrodes on its brain and muscles. They equipped the beetle with a module incorporating a circuit to send signals to the electrodes, wireless circuit, microcontroller and battery. The university has so far succeeded in several experiments of electrically controlling insects, but it used a radio control system this time.

The researchers used rhinoceros beetles in this experiment because they can carry a weight of up to 3g. They can fly carrying the module weighing about 1.3g on their backs. And another reason is that they look cool, according to the university.

For military surveillance?

For what purpose does the university conduct such a research? Considering the fact that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the US is funding the research, it may be intended for military purposes.

Commenting on this point, the university said that the technology can be utilized for peaceful purposes as well. In fact, the radio-controlled beetle can be useful in places that are too narrow or dangerous for a human to enter and for many other purposes.

For that use, the university is planning to mount sensors including a camera on a beetle in the future. With the sensors, rhinoceros beetles will be able to work as surveillance robots in place of humans. As they can carry a weight of 3g, 1.7g of sensors, in addition to the 1.3g of the current module, can be mounted.

However, the ultimate goal of this research goes beyond just incorporating sensors. Beetles are already equipped with "sensors," such as their own eyes. In addition, they have a system to derive energy from food. So, the university is aiming to make the most of insects' own sensors while using their energy system as batteries.

Setting aside the question of whether it is morally right or wrong to use a living creature for such a purpose, we must think about the "production efficiency" to create "cyborgs" that are beneficial to mankind. Commenting on this, the university said it can produce the cyborg in a short period of time because the positions of the electrodes worn by a beetle need not be so precise.