Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University unveiled their startling ‘robe-beetle’ breakthrough this week – raising the possibility of a future synthesis of biology and cybernetics.
They used electric pulses to steer adult male M. torquata beetles in different directions, increasing their acceleration by changing the frequency of the pulses.
The study, published in the Soft Robotics journal, stated: “Instead of imitating the complicated kinetics and mechanisms of insect locomotion, a live insect can be directly transformed into a soft robot by embedding it with artificial devices.”
Commenting, Sawyer Fuller from the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the project, told New Scientist magazine: “This is the first demonstration that insect motion can be steered in a desired direction in a consistent way.
“It shows that truly autonomous, bio-hybrid robots the size of insects are a real technical possibility.”
The study goes on to suggest that the creatures could be used in search and rescue missions.
Lead researcher Hirotaka Sato said: “If we integrate carbon dioxide and infrared sensors they could detect living people.”
He pointed out that insects were easier to control than drones as well as cheaper, and would not run out battery either.
Researchers discovered that two short pulses lasting 150 milliseconds, with a 50 millisecond break in between, was the most effective way to control the beetles.
They recorded a 79 per cent success rate when the beetle’s position was updated every 200 milliseconds.
The researchers had to learn how to raise the insects and keep them in ideal conditions for the study.
However, while the experiments had no impact on their three-to-six month lifespan of the beetles, researchers were unable to say whether the creatures feel pain.
The next stage of the study will involve them trying to work out how to control the beetles’ altitude and make them hover in mid-air.