In Brief

Forget drones, giant cyborg beetles are the future

Scientists create digital 'backpacks' to control insects' speed and direction through the skies

Giant cyborg beetles could one day be winging their way through the skies instead of mechanical drones, scientists say.

The living insects would be controlled by a digital "backpack" that could carry out some of applications currently undertaken by unmanned flying machines.

A team from Singapore and California has successfully controlled the flight of large flower beetle using electrical impulses directed at the animals' muscles, says the Daily Telegraph.

Labs across the world are already trying to develop "artificial insects" which could be used for tasks such as searching for earthquake victims in piles of rubble. The new research suggests using actual insects might be cheaper.

Engineers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the University of California Berkley chose to work with the giant flower beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, because of its great size and strength.

The microchip backpack was attached using beeswax, which would not harm the animals, and the team stresses that all of the beetles trialled have gone on to live for their natural lifespan of five to six months.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_original","fid":"92880","attributes":{"class":"media-image"}}]]

The beetles were fitted with electrodes on their legs, optic lobes and flight muscles. A radio signal then directed the animal to walk at a specific speed, take off, turn left or right and even hover in mid-air.

At the moment, the chip is powered with a lithium battery which lasts for around a day, but it should be possible to use solar power in the future or even energy "scavenged from ambient radio waves", says project leader Hirotaka Sato.

The advantages of a living beetle over a mechanical one are said to include cost-effectiveness, with each backpack costing around £5, and ease of use - the beetle only has to be told which way to go and how fast, it does the rest itself.

So far, the insects have only flown within a closed room but the team plans to switch to outdoor trials next.

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