Universities Envision Flying Beetle Swarms; But Crawl Before You Fly

Researchers at Nanyang Technical University and the University of California at Berkley wanted to answer the question: how do you make a small drone that can fly all day? The problem is that a drone needs a battery or other energy source, but a big battery needs a big drone.

Their answer? Take a giant beetle and strap enough electronics onboard to deliver tiny shocks to direct the insect’s flight. The tiny shocks don’t take much power and once the beetle is on course, no further shock is necessary unless the human pilot needs to correct the direction. Recent work allows a similar controller to control each leg of the beetle, turning it into a more versatile flying or walking cyborg.

The beetles are about 3 inches across and can lift the control backpack and sensors. A small battery can keep a beetle-drone operating all day. The team hopes to eventually build the control backpack so that it operates on harvested energy and won’t require any batteries.

The backpack materials cost less than $8 and use mostly off-the-shelf components. Organic beeswax, which is harmless to the beetle’s carapace, secures the electronics to the insect. Six electrodes connect to the beetle’s optic lobes and flight muscles. Wireless signals influence the beetle to take off, turn, or even hover. The walking version uses eight pairs of electrodes to control the creature’s front legs. An eventual goal is to completely control all the legs.

We’ve covered plenty of cyborg modifications, but usually with humans. However, we have seen an earlier version of the robobeetle drone. If you’ve never seen a beetle on a breadboard, you really want to see the video, below.

132 thoughts on “Universities Envision Flying Beetle Swarms; But Crawl Before You Fly

    1. If they were using this to cure a disease or some sort of research that has the ability to help mankind, I wouldn’t feel cringy over this. But they are using a living creature to harvest as a power source which will ultimately go on to be used for what man does best. WAR.
      I feel the same way about dogs of war. They don’t comprehend what they are doing, they are just being loyal to humans. And while I don’t blame soldier dog handlers, I do blame policy that sends dogs to war when those dogs cannot know what they are in for. We shouldn’t be dragging other beings into our terrible human made problems.

    2. Well it is China that is involved so I am surprised that they even bothered with beetles, normally they just grab a Tibetan monk off the street at random and use him to experiment on.

    1. I’m glad someone else said this. You’re not alone in thinking that this is not okay.

      Of course, scientists have done lots of unethical things in the past, they’re doing lots of unethical things today, and in all likelihood they will continue far into the future. This is interesting and obviously useful, so people will investigate and make use.

      Some will walk away from Omelas.

      1. Even more strictly speaking it’s beetle torture, but I don’t know how that helps, I’d stick with the phrase ‘animal torture’. Small animals like this certainly show that they do not want to be captured, I don’t know whether they would feel anything from having the electrodes inserted.

          1. A some point, a scientist wanted to figure out what the wings on a fly were good for. So, they removed the wings, and then shouted on the fly so it should take off. Because the fly did not took off, the scientist concluded that the fly was deaf, and then the wings are being used to listen for its environment. This *is* torture, whatever the prey being used. And this *is not acceptable*, science or not.

      1. killing an insect is different than purposely inflicting suffering and pain to a living body… I agree this is part of private assumptions here, but in my opinion any living creature has a consciousness level and should be allowed to live its life without being victim of some totally useless things… it may seem complete bullshit to some people but it has the merit to be a positive thought leading to positive possibilities (I encourage any insect in my surrounding to do its job as it wants, including spiders in my house and other critters in my permaculture garden)

        1. Agreed. Torture your fellow man if you must, but as another commenter pointed out, leave all the other species out of our wars (and leave children and, unless they sign up, women out too).

          More directly, any researcher who experiments on another living being should be required to be the subject of the experiment him/herself first. Do not ask others to do what you yourself wont.

          1. What is this nonsense about leaving women out?
            If you make that claim, then talk about humans. Are men not allowed to live in peace and be unharmed?
            What do I have to do with other people’s decisions to go to war?

      2. I’ll kill an insect as a last resort if I believe it will pose a threat to me.

        e.g. if I see a wasp flying around inside the house, I’ll first try to guide it outside, usually a few swipes with some blunt object toward an open window and they take the hint. Otherwise, it’s fly spray time.

        The last thing I want is a swarm of angry wasps attacking me as I go about my daily business just because I stray too close to their nest.

        It’s not something I take pleasure in, and I do not prolong their suffering.

        1. that wasp, unless you are extremely allergic, will never be a threat to you, it will only inflict discomfort.

          whether you take pleasure in it or not doesn’t really have much to do with the animals experience.

          1. You have a very loose definition of discomfort. It causes serious pain. It’s good to be respectful, which he showed he did. Stop trying to guilt-trip people and make everything seem trivial.

    1. Prove that it is cruel. Is directly stimulating nerves at normal levels any different from shining a light on its eyes? Cruel is when you have a porch light on, knowing moths are forced to fly in circles until they get close enough to fry themselves.

      1. Any researcher who experiments on another living being should be required to be the subject of the experiment him/herself first. Do not ask others to do what you yourself wont.

        Also, what kind of porch light are you running that can fry bugs?!

        1. they don’t need to fry them to kill them, most outdoor lights at night kill insects through exhaustion or forced predation (ie they go towards light, get eaten on way)

        2. I am willing to eat a hamburger, but not be butchered. I gladly swat mosquitos, but myself do not want to be swatted.

          This idea that a researcher should only do unto others blah blah blah is not only fallacious, it is counter-intuitive. We didn’t get to be the dominant species on this planet by refusing to eat meat or experiment on animals. Dogs and cats are an excellent example of how man’s early experiments with animals turned out.

          Its just a beetle, and I agree that the experiment is gruesome and torturous to the beetle. I even agree that we should think carefully before performing experiments of this nature. i disagree that we should not do them. Science requires the willful sacrifice of resources, living and non, to make progress.

          If, one day, we gain the understanding to fix just one human’s paralysis due to this work, I believe it is justifiable.

  1. I dont know if this is right guy.
    Im for science but I think this is to far. In my younger days I would say ok but now I have problems killing bugs other then mosquitoes .

  2. Several comments on animal cruelty, for a start it’s an insect and for a second it’s not like these are the panda bears of the insect world. I’m not sure what the alternative is… a robotic testbed?… (Why did we make them scream?) Would people prefer a more ‘dirty’ insect like a cockroach? What if it was really ugly but made goo goo noises like a baby?

    Those who are making the statement that ‘what you don’t care’ I think you’ll find the answer is something along the lines of ‘no, no we don’t’.

    Morality and science don’t mix.

      1. The ethical implications will be extensive for those who aren’t part of the project, for those who are I doubt it’s on the forefront of their mind. I see there’s a few interesting articles online concerning ‘nanoethics’ which are probably worth a read… Does size matter (ethically speaking?)

    1. Is an alternative required?
      Why do this at all?
      Luigi did it to frogs in 1780 and even then they were dead first.
      what are the applications? search and rescue? rescue what, other insects?

    2. “Morality and science don’t mix.”
      So you say dr Mengele and unit 731 were right after all or what?
      I hope you don’t get acces to anything important, at least as long as you think turning off ethics is good idea.

      1. Nobody is talking about Nazis or shadowy germ warfare we’re talking about testing electrical impulse system integration with tissue(s) on a beetle… there’s a term called perspective which i suggest people should read up on before comparing others to nazi war criminals.

        I understand what you’re saying, however you can’t make an omelette without…

        1. This is probably military funded research though. They really want these sorts of things: the authoritarian control freaks in their histrionic over-reach will stop at nothing to control us all and know what we are thinking.

          1. Seventy five quinquadragintillion bugs. That is the absolute limit.

            I must have been the only one entirely unmoved by the concept of turning these critters into electronic zombies… I see from the other comments this is a highly emotive subject, and the replies have possibly overshadowed the article.

            I’d be interested to understand the ratio of religious people to atheists who are disgusted (or otherwise) and whether that has any factors in their tolerance of this. If [they] were doing this in order to develop some sort of new pacemaker or a coupler for an optic nerve would people react in the same way? There seem to be a lot of people who are worried this is another step towards ‘super soldiers’ and some dark military desire.

        2. Nazi didn’t consider themselves war criminals either. It’s so easy to call them Nazi, instead of researchers. History just singled them out as the bad guys, similar questionable things happened in other places, not least the atomic bomb.
          Many unethical researchers that were Nazis wanted to heal or improve humans, but did not care about how they achieved their means. Others worked on weapons where the end goal was only to kill people: atomic bomb.

          It’s easy to make something seem good, when it’s not, and some still insist that some war crimes weren’t.

    1. Remind me to arrest you the next time you kill a fly. Or neglect taking your pet out for five minutes.

      Most scientists agree that even most insects don’t have a way to ‘sense’ pain. They react to impulses, but a beetle probably cannot think “Gee, that hurts”.

      1. these are the same scientists that are doing the unethical animal research. The same arguments (they dont really feel pain) have historically been applied to dogs/cats/mentally retarded people all to justify whatever the researchers wanted to use them for. The truth is we have no idea how any other creature experiences its inputs – even other humans to an extent. All we know is that if we do XYZ, we see a response in the same area of the brain that ABC produces, and that is not good enough.

  3. This is not the first time that Hackaday celebrates insect abuse and torture. I remember the DIY project to torture cockroaches very well. IMHO it is unacceptable to publish this kind of snuff stuff. It has nothing to do with hacking. To be honest, this si disgusting stuff that should have no place here.

    1. Hackaday are not celebrating this they are reporting on it. How you choose to react to that is for you to decide but not reporting it is wrong on every level, it leads to a society that I for one would not like to live in.

    2. Remind me to chastise you next time you kill a fly or, gasp, eat a hamburger. Get off your high horse.

      If you want to make a change, get off your keyboard and go save some honeybees.

  4. check before posting anything about cruelty:
    -are you vegan?
    -do you kill bugs/Spiders/ants?
    -can you think of scientific Progress through this, despite the drone Thing
    -do insects feel pain?

    1. no
      Yes, search and rescue in collapsed structures for example, which should have been a topic in the research
      I don’t believe so, insects live a binary life. Either they are alive and healthy, or something has injured them and they will shortly die. I don’t see how a creature of that size and lifespan would find pain receptors useful.

      1. So if I pump you full of opiates, I can ethically do whatever I want to you since you no longer feel pain? Please, come over for dinner; I’ve always wanted to peel someone’s skin off while they were alive.

        1. You are an idiot, shut up and stop being a pain in our asses..

          For one ethics is broader than “pain” so taking a person’s property, their skin, or even damaging it is still wrong.

  5. Ethics aside, I think this is just horrible. As in, grotesque.

    As is so often the case, it seems a situation where the possible has trumped the desirable. Yes, it’s a thing you can do. But do we really need “drone swarms” so badly that we should steer our technology and our world in this direction?

    1. Too late. Citizens tacitly endorse these activities by continuing to go to work each day in the face of fake elections, endless war and pervasive yet obvious propaganda of all types.

  6. +1 at what g33k said.
    Looks like another fail-a-day.
    It ‘s obviously not a hack, but who needs hacks when you have clickbaits? (wich this is since It’s so grotesque everyone will check It)

  7. The comments fascinate me. It’s ok to fumigate, and put out rat poison, and eat meat, even zap bugs on your porch. But zap bugs while taking notes and you’re a monster? I mean, it’s not nice and I wouldn’t want to do it, but perspective people! Have a nice day and go vegan :)

    1. how dare you show a little perspective!
      seriously though, it isn’t as if this is done without any benefit at all, for one it allows us to verify hypothesis about living brains and how they react to input, interfacing with neurons and any side effects it might bring.
      now i admit i am just spit balling here and in effect they may be doing nothing more than trying to control insects but that alone implies much of the above to be practical.

    2. This isn’t exterminating them. This is taking over their body as a propulsion system to solve human issues, “Drones” can be used for a lot of things, but 99.9% of the money for this kind of research can be tied back to making war.
      So now you have a creature that we cannot say without a doubt is not being tortured from its perspective, being zapped into doing our bidding to make a drone system that will without a doubt end up being used against our fellow man, no matter what side you are on, it’s not ethical to drag other hapless creatures into man made problems.

    3. Some are extremist in their views. But the main reason here is that the torture is completely unnecessary. There is no higher goal, and it’s not caused by something that beetle did (where killing would be a last resort).

  8. This is really awesome and very interesting. Everyone always finds something to complain about, its a damn bug for Christ sake. God isn’t going to save you because you pretend to care about the life of a meaningless bug. Science bro!

    1. I don’t believe in god. But I also don’t see how this is helping mankind to the point it needs to be done. It’s being purposed for our own intentions, which will undoubtedly be for making war. We have drones, we have small drones, most purposes that would be unrelated to war would not need this do be done. We are dragging creatures that cannot understand these implications into man made problems. That is pure evil. And you don’t have believe in a god to know that doing something wrong by you fellow man or other creatures is WRONG. Would you sign up if aliens showed up tomorrow and wanted to enslave you for their purposes because they have decided you and your life is meaningless to them?

  9. Wow, I’m surprised how people are against it. I mean I’d understand if something like that would be done to a human or any other self-aware animal. But if we take out insects or mice from science, considerable amount of fields will just stop expanding, basically say good bye to modern medicine.

    Unpopular opinion apparently, I find this fascinating.. I have no ethical/moral issues with this whatsoever regarding insects. There will be animals, especially the ones we have proved have self-awareness, I ‘d have problems with. E.g. in my opinion elephant caged in zoo is worse than this.

    Let the storm begin

  10. the beetle was bred specifically for this purpose. In some ways it would have only ever existed is if a scientist needed a programmable flying beetle.
    If you want to moan about animal cruelty, get off you computer and go save the bees. Do something with meaning, not type something with moaning.

    Grow up folks.

    I say more of these articles Hackaday, less of those awful hyperloop stories, they were a bit much.

  11. I understand that animals are needed for research now and will be into the future, but still this, for which I can see very little purpose at the moment makes me uneasy. I think if were going to do research of this type we should use something nobody would object to, like politicians.

  12. How the heck is this NOT a hack?

    You’re taking a thing and re-purposing it in a way that it wasn’t designed for. Basically a textbook hack.

    Bolting electronics onto a living thing is *totally* a hack (at least until it becomes so commonplace that it’s just another of the everyday technological marvels we perform), whether or not ethically questionable.

  13. Glad to see the appreciation for life in the comments. But a few questions:

    1. What’s the difference between a purposefully bred beetle or roach and a biological automaton?

    2. Some commenters have suggested that a non-biological alternative (e.g. a mechanized micro-drone) would be a more ethical alternative. How much life is incidentally destroyed through the supply chain for technology? Simply generating power for the processes involved affects the global ecosystem, impacting living creatures in countless ways.

    Perhaps harnessing insect life is actually the most ethical option available to achieve technological goals, having a limited and well-defined killing footprint.

    1. Something to think about regarding Global Warming: Yes, raising the mean temp and seal levels and CO2 levels and all will result in massive die-offs of existing species, but it will also create new niches and improve conditions for other species. The Earth isnt the same temp/composition now that it always was – who’s to say that “now is perfect”?

    2. You miss the point. We can always improve how we deal with our environment. But this is research where an animal is knowingly harmed, for no great insight.
      Saying we should first fix other factors that kill more insects (to most unknowingly) is a red herring.
      These two are not related at all, it’s not a numbers game.

  14. Reading this article, I was dreading the comments. I imagined people would just think this is a cool hack. I’m so glad to see that so many people find this as disgusting as I do.

    How fucking dare they dream that they have the authority to do this.

      1. I don’t and I wouldn’t. I don’t get cockroaches here, but if I did I’d pick it up and put it outside like a fucking adult if it was bothering me that much.

    1. A doctor taps a patient on the knee with a small hammer. The patient kicks him in the face. The anthropomorphizing backyard psychologist concludes that the tap must have hurt tremendously for the patient to retaliate so.

      1. *facepalm* the ironing is delicious! So this ‘pain’ thing you have labeled, as a human, is the standard for whether it’s ok or not to fuck with things that aren’t like you? Anthropomorphize much?

  15. I wonder what the Jain’s consider with that mouth cover to avoid ingesting a fly and the whisk to clear the path of any insects, what to do about the war on microbes going on in and on their bodies with their own defenses. Phagocytes are nasty to all kinds of life stopping stuff.
    Oh, and let’s not even get into ‘do cells feel pain’ and sensory science at the cell level.

    1. Apparently many Jains won’t eat fermented food, because of all the microbe deaths. I have to assume this is since the discovery of micro-organisms. Kind of a weird side-effect of that discovery.

      Thing is, Jains are full of gut flora and fauna, like anyone. And skin bacteria. Wonder if they consider that?

  16. Ethics aside From what I can gather this system is directly activating the muscles to control their movement overriding the brains directive.

    The backyard brains cockroach experiment applied stimulus to a neural input to the brain which was equivalent to physically touching it’s antennae. The roach is free to choose its action based on the available information provided to it

  17. Experiments like the one shown might be able to help us to understand what is needed to help disabled people, by indirectly activating their now incapacitated limbs. If one human is helped by this, it justifies thousands of dead bugs. I’d also rather train med students first on bugs, than on people. Alternatively, would you rather die from malaria (poor mosquitoes)/ plague (poor rats)/ hunger (poor potato beetles)/…? People also seem to forget that many of those insects would not exist at all if it was not for the humans: those animals are bred for experiments, and most of them live pretty good lives, navigating the mazes, picking preferred smells, mating, etc.

    1. Nonsense. This “research” is not going to help humans at all. It’s not to restore function of damaged nerves or to find workarounds.

      Working with fear as you do is the wrong mindset as well. I hope you don’t teach doctors to convince people like that.

  18. Experiments like these demonstrate the parasitic levels humans can lower themselves too. Science is about bettering society, not trying to one up Josef Mengele. Truly disgusting!

    1. It would have to be tried on other humans before it was used on you, that is what medical trials are. But those humans are volunteers. As for zapping nerves in legs etc. that is so old school I doubt they’d need to go below trials on primates these days if the end treatment was for humans as all the fundamental work was done long ago. The article is not about work to improve people’s lives via medical treatments, so the comparison is questionable.

    1. Stupid fear argument. Nothing in this “research” will improve the knowledge we have about the nervous system, especially since they differ enough from ours.
      Also, see Dan’s reply above.

  19. Seriously, peoples that are telling other peoples who find this kind of experiment disgusting that they are hypocrite unless they are vegan or have never killed an insect are really not comparing apple with apple. There is a huge difference between squashing a spider or killing a cow with a pneumatic hammer, killing them instantly, and showing electrode down the nervous system or into the or muscle of a living being and constantly zapping them to forcibly control their motion. Now I understand there might be real advancement that can be achieved from such research but don’t go around telling people they shouldn’t get upset unless they never killed a fly. At what point does scientific advancement warrant losing our moral and humanity?

  20. Let’s hope the future of science and technology IS NOT in the hand of those posting about the feeling of an insect.
    But I guess not. Insect welfare commentators are busy somewhere else … commenting.

  21. Iam genuinely surprised to see a US university involved in this, the Chinese on the other hand seem to have little regard for living things, does this make me a racist? BTW I’m Scottish not American.

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