If PETA gets upset when somebody swats an fly, I wonder what they'd have to say about somebody turning an insect into a deadly assassin for the military. Because though it seems outlandish, we're about halfway there. The Pentagon has funded a project at UC Berkley in which scientists have successfully grafted electrodes and tiny radio antennae to flying beetles--allowing researchers to steer the beetles by remote control. These cyborg beetles are both fascinating and terrifying--the project is helping scientists discover new insights into how beetles fly. But experts are also already discussing the possibilities a remote-controlled flying beetle can offer the military.
So how does one create a remote controlled cyborg beetle, anyhow?
Well, evidently, electrodes are implanted at the beetles' pupal stage in order to outfit the beetles for remote control later. A Berkley scientist explains (via the BBC)
"You are plugging electrical devices into its nervous system and then triggering its muscles so that when it is flying, if you put a little bit more zorch into the muscle on the left-hand side, that will flap a bit harder and that will control the direction it is going in."Here's a video of the scientists controlling the beetle's flight remotely, via the New Scientist:
Using Cyborg Beetles for Good or Evil?
And here's where things start to get a little unnerving--discussing how the military would be interested in taking advantage of such technology. According to robotics professor Noel Sharkey of UK's Sheffield University, there's not too much that the Pentagon could with the beetles right now. GPS systems or other tracking devices are too heavy and cumbersome to fit on beetles' backs. But he notes that the cyborg beetles could feasibly carry chemical weapons and could be effective assassins, though this would be highly illegal.
Solar-Powered Brain-Recording Backpacks?
But it looks like for now, surveillance is the key function the military hopes the beetles can accomplish--they've hired an engineer at the University of Utah to design "brain-recording backpacks" for the insects. The engineers are skeptical about even this though, since they still need a working power source. So far, they've tried piezoelectrics and solar power, both of which have come up short. With advances in technology, however, they admit the project could be a success.
Which means, the day may soon come when we've got remote-controlled, solar-powered cyborg beetle spies on our hands.