NTU-led team creates drone-like beetle

Aim is to use remote-controlled insects to enter inaccessible areas

Remote-controlled flying beetles as small as 6cm in length could soon be helping out in search-and-rescue missions, such as by entering collapsed buildings to hunt for survivors.

A team from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the University of California, Berkeley has managed to glue a "backpack" on a giant flower beetle using organic beeswax, which allows the bug to be controlled wirelessly with minimal human intervention.

The insect's tiny size means that it is ideal for entering areas that have previously been inaccessible.

Weighing 1.3g, the backpack consists of a microprocessor that converts radio signals into a variety of actions.

Electrodes from the microprocessor are inserted into the beetle's body using tiny needles, causing the insect to take off, change directions or even hover in mid-air.

"By sending a signal to the beetle, we are able to simply change its direction of movement and the beetle will manage the rest," said Assistant Professor Hirotaka Sato from NTU's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who led the study.

Prof Sato believes the idea could replace remote-controlled drones.

Test flights conducted within a closed room showed that the beetle - which weighs an average of 8g, about the same as a $1 coin - was able to change direction, take off and hover.

Associate Professor Michel Maharbiz of UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences said: "Our long-term vision is to show that we can remotely induce an insect to fly, control turns when required and stop when it reaches a set location."

Prof Sato said the electrodes do not harm the beetle in any way and do not affect its normal adult lifespan, which is of several months.

He also said that only the "general direction" of the beetle will be controlled and the bug will still be allowed to control its manoeuvring or if it wants to hover in mid-air, for example. "It could go into small nooks and crevices in a collapsed building to locate injured survivors," he added.

The project is supported by the NTU, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore and the National Science Foundation in the United States.

The results were published this week in science journal Current Biology.

kcarolyn@sph.com.sg