Paolo Rossi Castelli 29 September 2022 16 min read

Cyborg-beetles from Japan

Part-insect and part-robot, they can be used to carry out reconnaissance in inaccessible and dangers areas. They are powered by extremely fine mini-photovoltaic panels, but there are ethical and technical issues.

Now even large beetles (6 cm long) belonging to a species from Madagascar, Gromphadorhina portentosa, have become cyborgs i.e. they are made into hybrids with AI remote-controlled robotic parts.

These unusual creatures – part insect, part robot – have been created by bioengineers at the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (CPR) in Japan, after years of study, in partnership with groups from other countries who then published the results of their work, together with photos, in the Nature Group journal “NPJ Flexible Electronics”.

These cyber insects might cause panic if seen by people who don’t know what they are or, above all, why they have been created, but their aim is to carry out reconnaissance in inaccessible or dangerous zones or even simply agricultural areas (for example, to check the conditions of expanses of farmed land).

A remote-controlled exoskeleton

The task was not easy. In fact, it required an in-depth study of insect movement, as when insects have to overcome obstacles they flex their carapace covered in scales and move their abdomen in a complementary way.

To preserve the extraordinary movement ability of insects like these who are constantly active, the engineers created an exoskeleton with some adhesive and some free-moving parts. A soft, flexible device was added to this extremely thin structure to control the legs, powered by mini-solar panels (just 0.004 mm thick), enclosed in a kind of 3D-printed ‘backpack’.

“The ultra-fine solar cell module mounted on the beetles has an output of 17.2 MW, 50 times more powerful that current devices tested on live insects,” explains Kenjiro Fukuda, research coordinator.
Thanks to rechargeable batteries, this apparatus has theoretically unlimited autonomy, although the maximum duration tested, for the moment, has been a month. It is also possible to have longer, continuous control of the leg movements, to stop the insects running off wherever they want.

When equipped like this the beetles can cover double the distance they would normally cover, without apparently suffering. The exoskeleton movement is also very similar to that of other species like the cicada, which could become the next cyborg insect.

Some questions and ethical issues

We should remember however, that while the authors of the study underline the potential of cyborg beetles in peaceful and mostly beneficial scenarios, like collecting data on pollution or during a spill, it is obvious that they could be used in war, or for spying.

Finally, there are also ethical reasons that could stop the development of cyborg-insects: it is the issues of making creatures (that although most people instinctively find revolting) carry out forced movement, when they also have rights as living beings.

 

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Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by corriere.it on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.