Technology: Neural Implant Radio Controlled Beetle

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Scientists at the university of California have managed to implant a chip in a giant flower beetle that makes it respond to commands from the computer. They can tell it to fly, stop, turn left and turn right.  The controls are done through its optic nerves and wing muscles. Though the article states that flight signals are sent to the optic lobes and steering is done through stimulation of the wing muscles, the video shows steering being accomplished through optic lobe stimulation.

Though we’re sure there’s some grand scientific goal behind this, we can’t help but think (hope) that we’ll be seeing giant robot controlled beetle battles with lasers and rockets.

REMOTE-CONTROLLED insects may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they have already been under development for some time now. In 2006, for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development branch) launched the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems program, whose ultimate aim is to turn insects into unmanned aerial vehicles.

Such projects provide proof of principle, but have met with limited success. Until now, that is. In the open access journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, a team of electrical engineers led by Hirotaka Sato of the University of California, Berkeley, report the development of an implantable radio-controlled neural stimulating device, with which they demonstrate, for the very first time, the accurate control of flight in freely flying insects.

The miniaturized system developed by Sato and his colleagues is mounted onto the pronotum (the dorsal, or upper, plate of the exoskeleton), and consists of electrodes implanted into the brain and wing muscles and a microbattery. Flight commands to start and stop flight and control the insect’s elevation and turning were generated on a personal computer running specialized software, and transmitted to a microcontroller equipped with a radio transceiver.

The device is much simpler to program and use than similar ones developed previously, because it makes implicit use of the beetle’s own flight control capabilities. The researchers found that flight could be initiated by simply applying a single pulse of electrical stimulation via the electrodes implanted into the left and right optic lobes. A single pulse from the same electrodes was also sufficient to stop the wing beats. Exactly how this occurs is unclear; it is known that visual inputs can initiate flight in locusts and fruit flies, and the researchers speculate that stimulation of the optic lobe activates large diameter “giant fibre” motor neurons which project from the brain to the wing muscles.

Once initiated, flight continued in the absence of further stimulation. The beetle powers its own flight, and levels with the horizon on its own, so that the neural and muscle stimulators are only used when a change in orientation or elevation is required. Turning could be initiated by asymmetrical stimulation of the muscles at the base of the wings, with a left turn being triggered by an electrical pulse to the right flight muscle, and vice versa. The stimulator could also be used to modulate the frequency of wing oscillations, which caused changes in altitude.

Electrically-controllable insects have obvious military applications. They could be used as micro air vehicles for reconnaissence missions, or as couriers which deliver  small packages to locations that are not easily accessible to humans or terrestrial robots. The beetles used here (Mecynorrhina torquata) are among the largest of all insect species, and are capable of carrying addditional loads of up to 30% of their 8g body weight. But they could also be very useful to researchers who study insect mating behaviour, the foraging behaviour of insect predators, and flight dynamics and energetics.

More about the concept

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.

Video: http://www.technologyreview.com/video/?vid=217

Posted by hamzaazeem   @   26 September 2009 1 comments
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