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Cyborg Beetle Research Allows Free-Flight Study of Insects

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A giant flower beetle is shown flying with an electronic backpack.

Hard-wiring beetles for radio-controlled flight turns out to be a fitting way to learn more about their biology.

Credit: Tat Thang Vo Doan and Hirotaka Sato/NTU Singapore

University of California, Berkeley researchers are studying cyborg insects in an attempt to learn more about a muscle used by beetles for finely graded turns.

The researchers strapped tiny computers and wireless radios onto the backs of giant flower beetles and recorded neuromuscular data as the insects flew around.

The study enabled the researchers to discover that a muscle known for controlling folding the wings also was important for steering, and they used that information to improve the precision of the beetles' remote-controlled turns.

"This is a demonstration of how tiny electronics can answer interesting, fundamental questions for the larger scientific community," says Berkeley professor Michel Maharbiz.

The researchers tested the function of this muscle, called the coleopteran third axillary sclerite muscle, by stimulating it during flight for graded turns that were more controlled than previous versions of the cyborg beetle.

The beetle backpack consists of an off-the-shelf microcontroller and a built-in wireless receiver and transmitter. In addition, six electrodes are connected to the beetle's optic lobes and flight muscles.

"Our findings about the flight muscle allowed us to demonstrate for the first time a higher level of control of free-flying beetles," Maharbiz says.

From UC Berkeley NewsCenter
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