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Buzzing to life: The rise of cyborg insects

By Isaac Ang Nov. 17, 2022

Kailey Hu Art

Scuttling in from a gap in the wreckage is a metal beetle. Strapped with carbon dioxide sensors, the insect detects human life under the rubble of a large building. Minutes later, rescuers follow the beetle’s signal and pull a worn, old man out from the debris. The beetle has saved his life. Part-insect, part-robot, cyborg insects have a wide range of uses from detecting buried survivors to pollinating farms. However, numerous technological and ethical issues stand in the way of the commercialization of cyborg insects.

With their small size and existing capabilities, cyborg insects can scope out enemy territory. Drones present the challenge of compacting flight and other functions into a small body, but insects’ biology allows them to fly naturally. Cyborg insects are also advantageous from an economic and environmental standpoint. In an NBC News article, Texas A&M University engineer Hong Liang explains that fitting real insects with mechanical components is less expensive and more energy efficient than constructing a robot insect from the ground up. Additionally, the cyborg insects can respond to dangers in their environment utilizing their own natural instincts—helping them avoid obstacles like guard dogs and carry out operations successfully.

“In finding ways to improve the efficiency of surveillance and search-and-rescue missions, it is clever to pull inspiration from insects as they can access small spaces such as caves. I can see these bugs becoming a staple of our society in five to ten years” Senior Ethan Chen said.

Cyborg insects were made possible by recent technological developments in making lighter sensors and more convenient fabrication techniques. However, according to The Washington Post, engineers hoping to deploy the insects on a large scale face the challenge of replicating a larger robot’s workload in a smaller electronic unit. In order to accomplish this, they need to improve the efficacy of actuators—mechanical parts that transform energy into motion—and create tinier, yet more powerful batteries.

Animal welfare activists have also raised questions regarding the ethics behind controlling insects. Kenjiro Fukuda, a researcher at Japan’s Riken Thin-Film Device Laboratory, is attaching devices to cockroaches and steering them left and right through momentary shocks. In The Washington Post, New York University bioethics professor Jeff Sebo expressed concerns over the lack of insect welfare policies and how bugs feel with heavy devices on their back—despite there being no scientific proof to show that they feel pain from it. Additionally, others assert that it would be difficult to establish the sight of cyborg insects in everyday surroundings as a societal norm.

“Cyborg insects may be useful for rescuing disaster survivors, but it is unnecessary to employ them beyond this role, especially with regards to surveillance. It is better to forego some of the potential benefits than to terrify people,” Freshman Andrianna Wilkinson said.

Despite higher production costs, robot insects may be a practical and ethical alternative to cyborg insects; they have similar agility and size to real bugs and longer life spans, as per technology magazine Robotics Tomorrow.

Pioneering the field, a team of researchers at MIT built lightning bug robots that mimic firefly bioluminescence. They created artificial muscles for the robots, allowing them to dictate their light emission and wing beat frequency. Kevin Chen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and a member of the team, hopes that they can eventually be used to pollinate crops in vertical farms.

Kailey Hu Art

After scientists overcome the technological and ethical hurdles, cyborg insects can be utilized in countless applications. Living or man-made, insects have the potential to take flight where humans are unable to.


About the Contributors

Isaac Ang

Investigative Report & Last Word Editor

Isaac Ang is a senior at Leland High School and is the Investigative Report and Last Word Page Editor. During his free time, Isaac enjoys rock climbing, coding, and reading/watching Lord of the Rings.

Kailey Hu

art director

Kailey Hu is a senior at Leland High school and is one of the Art Directors for The Charger Account. During her free time, she likes to spend her time drawing, going on walks, sewing, reading, and crafting.

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