A cyborg or cybernetic organism, according to Wikipedia, is an amalgamation of two words ‘Cybernetic’ and ‘Organism’. It was coined in 1960 and has been studied in parts under bionics, biomedical, human enhancement, BCI and such fields. And, while cyborgs have always been depicted as humans in Hollywood, these can be any organism.
The fascinating world of flying insects or cyborg beetles was perceived as a step closer to reality in 2009. The IEEE MEMS conference in Italy in the same year was a treat to the audience. The researchers demonstrated the first-ever wireless flying beetle or the first cyborg beetle in action. In the same spree, researchers at the University of California Berkeley pioneered the remote-controlled beetle that was funded by DARPA.
The Small and Tiny MEMS and Hi-MEMS Era
If you have seen this abbreviation a lot these days but never knew what it meant here is a glance? To make anything like a human being or a little like a cyborg we need a good understanding of electronics and computer science. This means that the cybernetic organism must look and work like their living counterparts and this was not going to be easy. To make this is a reality micro-electronic and mechanical systems need to be designed that could be tiny and still operational. If one could design these mechanisms in a tiny form factor, it was a possibility to make them work and look like the real living organisms in nature.
The words micro-electronic and mechanical systems are what constitute the abbreviation MEMS. They have propelled the current era of micro-robotics and will continue to do so in the future. The Field of MEMS and Micro Robotics have boosted the field of cyborg beetles and cyber roaches and more. This research spans the field of design methodologies, physical investigations, and manufacturing technologies involving myriads of sensors called ‘Microsensors, Microactuators’ and Microsystems’. You can also break them down into further niche categories like MEMS fabrication and design, micro and nanorobotics, and implantable medical microsystems.
To enable the current generation of scientists and young scholars to chase the future dream of making cyborg beetles and cyborg humans, knowing the progress so far is required. What can MEMS do for robotics? This is exactly what this research article from Springer aims to address.
Towards Controllable Micro Cyborg Beetles
The terms micro and nano have been widely used by marketing personnel that their actual reference has been long faded. It must be remembered that micro and nano are units of measurements for objects that are too small and can’t be seen by the naked eye. But with things like micro and nano-SIM card, the terms micro and nanorobotics is also applied as fancy ways of referring to the ultra-small era of robotics. A generation that is much smaller than before.
The smallest, most controllable cybernetic beetle insect that we have seen so far is surely the cyborg beetle swarm that must not be underestimated. Robotics has tried very hard to match the agility and versatility of natural counterparts and luckily some have gotten very close to this idea. One idea has always been to use bioinspiration and ideas to design artificial form and factor. But, a more straightforward approach to this without starting from scratch is to develop more biologically advanced robots. This new cyborg beetle from NTU or Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has been making the rounds online.
It has been touted as the smallest and most controllable yet. Professor Hirotaka Sato described his work like so. According to him, it is entirely possible to use a living insect as a platform to develop a living insect-machine hybrid robot. Such a hybrid system will retain the structure of the insect’s rigid exoskeleton and soft actuators while enabling high controllability and low power consumption. To make this possible, a living insect platform is used with a minia
turized electronics device attached to its body and controlling it remotely.
That is the insect itself is used as a robot and thus the researchers bypass the complex and never-ending dilemma of designing and developing new material, design and what else for the robot. It bypasses the fabrication and designing of the impossible robot body. Because, there is no way one can actually determine and accurately mimic the soft actuators, flexible joints, nervous systems and control systems.
And, thus was born the ultralightweight living legged robot.
The Advantage of Doing this Kind of Work
Although we have mentioned in a single line the benefit of modeling the problem in the manner we have done. Offering cyborgs was also initially coined as a combined form of cybernetics and organisms. SO, the human and machine working together or a beetle and microprocessors working together is the same thing after all.
In this case, the particular beetle is a type of darkling beetle. It is small, about 2 to 2.5 cm and lightweight at about 0.5 grams. It is also having a lifespan of two to three months which is a long lifetime for a small bug. The way this work is a backpack of electronics is mounted at the back of the bug and it interfaces with the beetles’ antennae. Now, stimulating the antennae with an electric pulse activates the built-in escape mechanism fooling it to think that it is running into some sort of trouble and forcing it to turn.
- These are ultra-lightweight and ultra controllable because they use the insect itself.
- The antenna system is not binary and hence there is a level of control there too.
- They are not entirely artificial or microrobots. They are hybrids or cyborgs in the true sense.
Cyborg beetles with hybrid approaches are still using their brains and nervous system to control their limbs and other senses. While using stimulus one can control them to maneuver in the desired direction and the desired time. With just two coin-celled batteries this cyborg beetle can be run for 8 hours enough to traverse over a kilometer.