Scientists are keen on understanding how insects fly. A group of researchers from the University of California Berkeley and Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, for instance, wanted to find out how beetles steer themselves in flight.
It appears that strapping a tiny electronic backpack to beetles and allowing them to fly could be a good way for the researchers to learn about the biology of these insects, which aid them when they fly.
For the new study published in the journal Current Biology on March 16, Michel Maharbiz from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences of UC Berkeley, together with colleagues, fitted a tiny backpack containing a wireless transmitter, battery and electrodes that are connected to the optic lobes and flight muscles of the beetle into the back of a giant flower beetle (Mecynorrhina torquata).
Neuromuscular data gathered by the researchers as the insect flew allowed them to determine that a muscle associated with the control of the folding of the bugs' wings also plays a critical role in steering.
Based on the information they have gathered, the researchers were able to electrically stimulate the beetles' tiny muscles located below their wings, allowing them to control the bugs' turns remotely with improved precision.
Maharbiz and colleagues said that it had been challenging to clarify what role smaller muscles have in fine steering. However, the new cyborg insect research has revealed that a muscle known as coleopteran third axillary sclerite (3Ax), which is located in the articulation of insect wings, has a crucial role in the ability of the beetle to steer right or left.
"We investigated the role of a muscle involved in wing articulation during flight in a coleopteran. We set out to identify muscles whose stimulation produced a graded turning in free flight, a feat that would enable fine steering control not previously demonstrated," the researchers reported.
The study shows the potential of wireless sensors in biological research, and this could pave the way for the development of applications and tools that could help in search and rescue operations in areas deemed too dangerous for humans.
"This is a demonstration of how tiny electronics can answer interesting, fundamental questions for the larger scientific community," Maharbiz said. "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."
See the remote-controlled steering of the beetle in the video below: