Scientists Turn Giant Flower Beetles Into Cyborgs to Study Flight

Posted on March 25, 2015

Cyborg giant flying beetle flying

Scientists have developed a way to turn beetles into cyborgs in order to study their flight and biology. The researchers from UC Berkeley and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) created tiny electronic backpacks containing computer components and wireless radios and strapped them on giant flower beetles (Mecynorrhina torquata).

The giant flower beetles measure about 6 centimeters long and weight about 8 grams. The backpacks are light enough that the beetle can still fly. They weigh about 1 to 1.5 grams. Six electrodes were connected from the electronic backpack to the beetle's optic lobes and flight muscles. This enabled the scientists to electrically stimulate the muscles while the beetles were flying.

Michel Maharbiz, an associate professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and the study's principal investigator, says in a statement, "Biologists trying to record and study flying insects typically had to do so with the subject tethered. It had been unclear if tethering interfered with the insect's natural flight motions."

A Cyborg giant flying beetle with an electronic backpack

During test flights, signals were transmitted to the beetle backpack every millisecond. The signals directed the beetles to take off, turn left or right, and hover in mid-flight. The beetles were untethered but in a closed room. The beetles were filmed using eight 3-D motion-capture cameras. The researchers say the new study helped them learn more about what role the beetle's smaller muscles play in flight. They found that the coleopteran third axillary sclerite (3Ax) muscle plays a key role in steering during flight.

A research paper on the flying cyborg beetles was published here in the journal, .

Photo: Tat Thang Vo Doan and Hirotaka Sato/NTU Singapore

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