Studying the flights of insects is indeed tough, given the limitations of scientific procedures that can analyse such patterns within a natural environment. However, a collaborative effort from the researchers at University of California, Berkeley and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, has resulted in something better. The scientists have successfully been able to strap an electronic setup on giant flower beetles – a technique which allows them to remotely control the insect while the organism is in flight. In essence, the seemingly science-fiction inspired scope can not only aid in studying of flying insects, but can potentially also help experts to ‘reach’ inaccessible areas (via these insects) during emergency search-and-rescue missions.
The electronic setup in question here entails a tiny microcontroller and an embedded (wireless) transmitter and receiver, while six electrodes were connected to the beetles’ optic lobes and flight muscles. This entire ‘power-train’ is juiced up by a 3.9-volt micro lithium battery, and weighs only around 1.5 grams. As for the testing phase, the researchers let loose the subject beetle into a room equipped with an array of eight 3D motion-capturing cameras. Then they regulated the flight pattern of the insect by sending radio signals (every millisecond) to this electronic backpack. In other words, the signals were used for stimulating the muscles, and thus controlling the navigation of the flying organism – with directives pertaining to taking off, steering left or right, and even commanding the insect to just hover in air.
The collected data associated with the neuromuscular attributes were finally gauged by a computer. From the credible info, the scientists were able to analyse and discover some crucial biological functions related to insect flight. For example, the muscle previously known to be used for folding the wings (also known as coleopteran third axillary sclerite) was now found to be also utilized for steering. And, even beyond this ambit of just studying the natural processes, the technology can have some applications in emergency scenarios. As NTU’s Professor Hirotaka Sato says –
“Beetles are ideal study subjects because they can carry relatively heavy payloads. We could easily add a small microphone and thermal sensors for applications in search-and-rescue missions. With this technology, we could safely explore areas not accessible before, such as the small nooks and crevices in a collapsed building.”
A paper on the incredible research was published in the journal Current Biology.
Image Credits: Tat Thang Vo Doan and Hirotaka Sato / NTU Singapore