In order to study insects in flight, a team of scientists at University of California, Berkeley and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) came up with the idea of installing an electronic backpack on the giant flower beetle. This allowed them to control the beetles in free-flight remotely.
This technology not only allowed the researchers to transmit neurological data of the beetles while in free flight and study the insects muscular and neurological functions via external stimulation, it also gave them a tool to control its motion and apply this technology in other areas such as search-and-rescue missions.
The electronic backpack measures a mere fraction of the beetles body and consists of a commercially-available micro-controller, a wireless transmitter/receiver, and a 3.9-volt micro lithium battery. It includes six electrodes, wired to the beetles’ optic lobes and flight muscles that transmit neuro-muscular data to a remote computer.
A lab experiment was carried out to monitor the beetles’ response. The beetles were placed in a closed room containing eight 3D motion-capture cameras. Radio signals were then transmitted to the backpack in millisecond, intervals and different muscles were stimulated by means of it. Remarkably, they were able to get the insects to take off, turn left or right, or hover in place.
This experiment led to the discovery of a previously unknown function of the beetles’ coleopteran third axillary sclerite muscle: researchers found out that it played a key role in their ability to turn. Previously, its known function included only folding of the wings underneath wing covers.
Prof. Hirotaka Sato of NTU, who is the study’s lead author, says that the these remote controlled beetles could have applications beyond entomological research. “We could easily add a small microphone and thermal sensors for applications in search-and-rescue missions,” he added. “With this technology, we could safely explore areas not accessible before, such as the small nooks and crevices in a collapsed building.” – talk about unintended (but brilliant) consequences!
A paper on this research was published in the journal Current Biology.