BLOG: Cyborg insects to be used for search and rescue

Using robots to perform human tasks is not science fiction anymore, but a well-established reality. The primary reasons are simple: not all locations are safe for humans to travel to, and hiring professionals is expensive.

Since the advent of robots, inspiration from biological creatures has been a major aspect that influenced both the design of robots as well as their functionality. Evolution and natural selection have resulted in creatures with streamlined physiological features, perfectly suited to traversing the earth.

However, according to Evan Ackerman,[1] a senior writer for IEEE Spectrum, ‘a more direct approach is to just make the robots themselves mostly biological.’ This is not a hypothetical idea, but a technology that is currently being used. As seen on inverse.com,[2] military institutions such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) regularly fund research in order to develop electronics that can be embedded within insects to control them.

Cyborgs are commonly perceived as human-robot hybrids, where biological humans are controlled by electronic devices within them. While the idea of cyborg humans is a well-debated issue and a far-fetched concept for some, attempts to create cyborg bugs are a current topic of interest.

Commonly misinterpreted as bioinspired robots – robots that draw inspiration from biological creatures – cyborgs are completely different. Whereas robots require years of prototyping before they are capable of traversing rough terrain and enduring harsh environments, living creatures have it instilled in them already.

Although a wide range of animals could be potential choices for cyborgs for search and rescue (the primary purpose of this research), most researchers opt for insects. Small form factors, rigid bodies and the ability to withstand large loads compared to their body weight make insects ideal for use in fieldwork.

An example is a cyborg beetle developed by Michel M. Maharbiz, of the University of California Berkeley, and Hirotaka Sato,[3] of Nanyang Technological University. The researchers used a darkling beetle[1], which is small and lightweight, but lives for about three months – a considerably long time for an insect of its kind. The electronics attached to the beetle stimulate its antennae, which cause it to fly in the required direction. This has a major advantage over other approaches which directly stimulate the insects’ muscles in that the beetle’s brain retains the authority of controlling the muscles for manoeuvre, while the devices guide the insect towards the desired location. This preserves all the evolutionary qualities gained by the beetle’s over thousands of years of evolution in terms of locomotion, while allowing researchers to control its direction of travel.

The beetle was not the only insect that researchers considered. As Maharbiz and Sato[3] mentioned in their article, locusts, moths and flies were choices for several earlier studies. However, although locusts and moths are large in size, their poor weight carrying capacities made them unfit for the tasks.

Flies, on the other hand, are very efficient flyers. As Lori Dajose[4] from Caltech explains, flies perform complex aerial movements using only twelve flight muscles, each using only one brain cell. However, Maharbiz and Sato[3] argue that, from an engineering point of view, flies are extremely difficult to work with, and you “practically have to be a nanosurgeon” to install the electrical components into their minuscule bodies.

Another potential alternative is the dragonfly. In fact, a research and development company — Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) — have collaborated on a project named DragonflEye, which aims to create a dragonfly that can be remotely controlled. Featured in IEEE Spectrum[5], engineers at Draper have been working on devising methods of genetically modifying the nervous systems of dragonflies and other similar insects so that they respond to beams of light. This would allow their flight trajectories to be controlled and enable use of the insects for tasks such as surveillance or even pollination. In this approach, a solar panel is installed onto the dragonfly which reduces the need for batteries and, in turn, reduces the size of the equipment to be carried. In June 2017, as featured in IEEE Spectrum[6], Draper has successfully managed to make DragonflEye fly.

While Draper find dragonflies optimal for the purpose, Maharbiz and Sato[3] believe they are very fragile. Furthermore, they discovered that as well as flying in a way similar to flies, the types and positions of the muscles in beetles were similar to flies. A small generator could also be attached, as Nicole Moore[7] writes, which allows the kinetic energy from the beetle’s movement to be stored. Beetles were their final choice, and even though developing a stable supply of the beetles took them time, they were able to achieve this and carry on with their research.

Although the future of this research appears to be bright, its ethical acceptability is debatable. Adam Dodd[8] of the University of Oslo argues that creating cyborgs requires the organism to be viewed as a mechanical creature when it is in fact a living being. Forcing the insects out of their instinctive actions is also a concern that others express, as published in the Sungkyun Times.[9]

While ethical acceptability is still a concern, it is certain that if the research succeeds, it will bring with it great progress in the use of wireless sensors for biological research, as well as paving the way for a new era of more effective search-and-rescue operations.

References

  1. E. Ackerman, Controllable Cyborg Beetles for Swarming Search and Rescue, UCL Engineering Inspiration, 28 November 2017.
  2. J. Carmichael, 24 October 2016.
  3. M. Maharbiz, and H. Sato, Cyborg Beetles, Scientific American 302, pp. 94–99, 2010.
  4. L. Dajose, Small but Mighty: Fruit Fly Muscles, Caltech, 26 January 2017.
  5. E. Ackerman, DragonflEye Project Wants to Turn Insects Into Cyborg Drones, IEEE Spectrum, 25 January 2017.
  6. E. Ackerman, Draper's Genetically Modified Cyborg DragonflEye Takes Flight, IEEE Spectrum, 1 June 2017.
  7. N. C. Moore, Insect cyborgs to search and monitor hazardous environs, University of Michigan, 21 November 2017.
  8. A. Dodd, The Trouble with Insect Cyborgs, Society and Animals 22, pp. 153–173, 2014.
  9. The Sungkyun Times, Robots with Life: Cyborg Bugs, 25 August 2016.

About the Author

University College London

Ahnaf Chowdhury is an Electronic and Electrical Engineering graduate from UCL and currently works as an application developer intern.

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