Hey, look! It’s a beetle with a backpack! An electronic backpack. Cool. But why does he have this backpack? Well, in an effort to better understand the musculature of insect locomotion, scientists and engineers from the University of California Berkeley and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) strapped on tiny computers and wireless radio controls to the backs of giant flower beetles (Mecynorrhina torquata) and placed tiny electrodes onto the target areas (muscles and optic lobes) to remotely control the flying of the beetles. This allowed them to study insect flight without tethering. In these studies, a small muscle that is known to be involved in folding the insect’s wings was also discovered to play an important role in fine steering during flight (Berkley News). After this discovery, the engineers and scientists were able to better steer the insect during remote controlled flight as well as control “flight initiation and cessation” and hovering (Berkley News). In another study on remote controlled insect locomotion, researchers were able to successfully adjust the speed, step length, and walking gait of the giant flower beetle.
Remote controlling of insects is useful not only in studying their biology but, because of their small size, could also aid in searching for survivors in collapsed buildings or disaster sites (Dezeen). Live insects can maneuver around obstacles with ease, so when presented with such an obstacle the “the user can simply switch off the controller, allowing the intrinsic neural control networks of the robot [insect–computer hybrid robot] to overcome or avoid the obstacle” (Journal of the Royal Society). And, just in case you were wondering, “all the beetles involved in the project went on to live for their usual lifespan of between five and six months” (Dezeen).