I remember reading a book in elementary school that was about a mad-scientist-esque girl who turns a swarm of cockroaches into an army of microchipped critters that she is able to control using a radio controller. Even as a child, the book (aptly titled The Cockroach War) was not even a bit convincing. While I had absolutely no knowledge in entomology or circuitry at that time, I knew that injecting a small computer chip into a bug cannot suddenly turn it into a cyborg that can move in any direction as you please.
According to a recent article by LiveScience, a science-based news source, the story of cyborg bugs isn’t so far-fetched after all. A group of scientists in Singapore successfully hijacked the movement of beetles (Mecynorrhina torquata, a species native to central Africa) using implanted electrodes in their front leg muscles, allowing them to control its locomotion to the point where they could manipulate their step length and walking speed. Their research is different from previous relevant studies on electric manipulation of insect movement in that their electrodes directly influence the muscles rather than their antennae or brains. By implanting eight pairs of electrodes, eight different muscles of the beetle are electrically stimulated, producing 3D motions that mimic the beetles’ natural gait and locomotion.
Surprisingly, insects are quite ideal subjects for making biological robots. Their small size means less power consumption (about 100 times less than robots of comparable size), and they are “ready-made platforms” that do not require hundreds of tiny parts to be integrated for control. There are downsides, too. For example, insects have short lifespans, which would mean that it probably isn’t a good idea to invest too much money for one bug that could die on you any minute.
What is even more surprising is that there are actually quite profound applications to this discovery! Further development of this technology could help the military utilize insects in espionage, as a few pairs of electrodes are far cheaper than actual microbots. Bugs that can be controlled could also be utilized in search-and-rescue missions as bugs can access small spaces that are often not accessible by humans.