An insect-computer hybrid, essentially a live beetle with remote-controlled limbs, has taken its first steps at the hands of its creators.
Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore designed the hybrid using a living beetle from the species Mecynorrhina torquate – a big, green insect native to tropical Africa, around seven centimetres long.
The researchers computerised the beetle by implanting eight pairs of electrodes into muscles in its two front legs, allowing them to send electrical stimulation to each individual muscle.
The team used a motion capturing system to analyse the sequence of movements in each leg muscle when the beetle walked at various speeds, and in various gaits.
These sequences were then recreated, using electrical stimulation applied to the beetle’s leg muscles with a remote control.
This way, the researchers were able to control the beetle’s gait, and the frequency of its steps, depending on how many times they repeated said sequence.
“To the best of our knowledge, this paper presents the first demonstration of living insect locomotion control with a user-adjustable walking gait, step length and walking speed,” the researchers write.
The study contributes to the wider field of nature-inspired robotics, in which engineers are increasingly looking to animals – and particularly insects – to uncover the secrets to building hardy, compact and high-performance machines to perform specific duties.
Try as they might, scientists have not yet managed to develop a robot with the movement control, robustness and energy efficiency of an insect.
One way around this, according to the paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, is to computerise living insects – a method that has a few significant benefits.
First, while man-made legged robots require the creation and assembly of lots of tiny parts, hybrids “use living insects as nature’s ready-made robot platforms”, according to the researchers. The hybrids also require significantly less wattage to function than an entirely manufactured robot.
More importantly, instead of using complex, and at times problematic, algorithms for movement, the hybrids rely on an insect’s natural motor neurons, thanks to “millions of years of natural evolution”.
Of course, this method comes with a few challenges, the most obvious being the computerised insect’s limited life-span.
However, the researchers hope this technology will contribute to our greater understanding of animal locomotion, and help experts to develop more accurate copies of nature’s as-yet unbeatable design.
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Amy Middleton is a Melbourne-based journalist.
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