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Lords of the flies: Are cyborg beetles a useful venture?

Wally Bahny discusses the usefulness of a DARPA-funded project in which the goal is to create remote-controlled insects to possibly use as spies or to search for disaster survivors.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have created cyborgs. Not your usual, science-fiction cyborgs, such as the Borg from Star Trek, but beetles implanted with electrodes and radio antennas. Scientists can remotely control these beetles via the antennas and electrodes implanted in their brain and muscles. (The beetles are two species: one is from the southern U.S. and the other is a larger African species.)

To make the beetles take off, the scientists use a particular series of electrical pulses to the brain; other pulses are sent to their wing muscles to steer the beetles; and pulses to the brain will make the beetles land. Most flights during recent tests were only for 45 seconds, but one test lasted for more than 30 minutes.

The ultimate goal of this Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-funded project is a social/military one: to create insects that can be fully remote controlled so they can be used as spies or as a recon drones to search for survivors after a disaster. However, biomechanist Tyson Hedrick (who is not connected with the project) told New Scientist that this project may help biologists understand the insect brain even more than it would help DARPA. Biologists could use this research to understand just how much control an insect has over its flight and how it achieves that using its brain and muscles.

Reid Harrison, an electrical engineer at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, also talked to New Scientist about the project. He has created brain-recording backpacks for insects to help understand insect neurophysiology, but he's skeptical of the ability to truly control insects' flight. He points out that power is a massive issue and that batteries, solar cells, and piezoelectric generators are either too heavy or do not hold/generate enough power to control an insect for too long.

While I think it would be extremely useful for rescue operations to have miniscule drones to send into disaster areas to search for survivors, I agree that cybernetic beetles may not be the answer. What do you think? Weigh in on the topic by posting your comments in the discussion.

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