Studies of basic insect biology can be subjects of howls of protest about waste of government money. However, much of the research has more importance and applicability than the naive can imagine. It does seem that little protest is made if the research has potential military applications. Since the military in the US has the largest discretionary budget, new types of research are being funded by programs such as the HI-MEMS program to create hybrid insects that can be electronically controlled.
Insects have many capabilities that are beyond replication by current technologies. Specifically, insects are much smaller than current remotely controlled flying machines and have sophisticated guidance systems. The cost and engineering challenge of producing a completely robotic insect is daunting. Thus, a program has been launched to create hybrids of insect and electrically controlled machines.
Insects control their muscles by electrical signals generated by nerves. Insect muscles can be artificially controlled by exogenous electrically generated signals. The hybrid insect concept is to attach a system capable of generating electrical signals to the insect nervous system. The insect behavior can then be controlled by sending electrical impulses to the nervous system. If the beetle carries a system capable of generating electrical signals and can receive radio signals from a remote controller, the beetle flight can be artificially manipulated.
The concept of electrical control of movement has been tested in numerous insects and can provide some crude control of insect movement. A group at the University of Michigan (Sato, et al.) have created a system that can manipulate the flight behavior of a June Beetle.
The June beetle, Cotinis texana, is a large insect (1-2 g), easier to surgically manipulate and capable of larger payloads than smaller insects. Probes are implanted into the beetle pupae and the adult molt heals the surgery and grows around the implant.
The current model delivers electrical impulses to large sections of the insect brain and to its flight muscles. Stimulation of the optic lobe will trigger a resting beetle to take flight. A stimulus to the optic lobe of a flying beetle can induce it to land. Electrical impulses to the left or right wing muscles can induce the insect to turn. The system is relatively crude as with any first generation technology. However, the level of sophistication can be improved over the original model. In other words, they need to “Work the bugs out” of their current system.
It will be interesting to see how much fine control any system can have over flying beetles. June beetles are notorious for their clumsy flight and the buzz and dull thud of night flying beetles slamming into a window screen.
A demonstration of the beetle flight can be seen on Youtube.
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