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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Technology Review: The Army's Remote-Controlled Beetle

The Army's Remote-Controlled Beetle

The insect's flight path can be wirelessly controlled via a neural implant.

By Emily Singer

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A giant flower beetle with implanted electrodes and a radio receiver on its back can be wirelessly controlled, according to research presented this week. Scientists at the University of California developed a tiny rig that receives control signals from a nearby computer. Electrical signals delivered via the electrodes command the insect to take off, turn left or right, or hover in midflight. The research, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), could one day be used for surveillance purposes or for search-and-rescue missions.

Beetles and other flying insects are masters of flight control, integrating sensory feedback from the visual system and other senses to navigate and maintain stable flight, all the while using little energy. Rather than trying to re-create these systems from scratch, Michel Maharbiz and his colleagues aim to take advantage of the beetle's natural abilities by melding insect and machine. His group has previously created cyborg beetles, including ones that have been implanted with electronic components as pupae. But the current research, presented at the IEEE MEMS in Italy, is the first demonstration of a wireless beetle system.

The beetle's payload consists of an off-the-shelf microprocessor, a radio receiver, and a battery attached to a custom-printed circuit board, along with six electrodes implanted into the animals' optic lobes and flight muscles. Flight commands are wirelessly sent to the beetle via a radio-frequency transmitter that's controlled by a nearby laptop. Oscillating electrical pulses delivered to the beetle's optic lobes trigger takeoff, while a single short pulse ceases flight. Signals sent to the left or right basilar flight muscles make the animal turn right or left, respectively.

Most previous research in controlling insect flight has focused on moths. But beetles have certain advantages. The giant flower beetle's size--it ranges in weight from four to ten grams and is four to eight centimeters long--means that it can carry relatively heavy payloads. To be used for search-and-rescue missions, for example, the insect would need to carry a small camera and heat sensor.


The Army's Remote-Controlled Beetle
By Emily Singer - Thursday, January 29, 2009
A scientist sends a wireless signal from the laptop to the beetle to start and then stop flight. The beetle, seen in the upper part of the frame, is tethered for practical purposes. The insect is attached to a clear plate, so that its flight pattern can be better observed. An oscilloscope shows the electrical signals as they are delivered: a short oscillating pulse triggers the animal to flap its wings, and it continues flapping until a short single pulse tells it to stop.
Video by Michel Maharbiz - Read the Article

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