Cyborg beetles being developed for the U.S. military wouldn’t need to carry extra batteries into the battlefield for their tiny spy sensors. The insects’ own flying motions or even body heat could provide the power for the small microphones or cameras that humans equip them with, according to researchers.
The cyborg insect project has backing from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is investigating how some of nature’s small creatures can be harnessed as intelligence-gatherers when the situation is dangerous for humans. Such cyborgs could provide a faster, cheaper solution than painstakingly engineered tiny scout robots. Still, they would need a power source for their equipment.
“Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack,” said Khalil Najafi, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Michigan.
Najafi and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka have created a piezoelectric generator that converts pressure or material stress from the motion of an insect’s wings into electricity. Such energy could extend the life of a battery carried by a cyborg beetle and might even give other researchers a hint about how to power tiny robots.
Previous cybernetic work with beetles showed how researchers could remotely control them to fly wherever the researchers wanted them to go.
Such small cyborgs could do more than scout for U.S. troops. In the aftermath of a disaster, they could help search ruined buildings or investigate hazardous zones such as the area of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Najafi and Aktakka published their latest work on energy scavenging in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering. Funding came from DARPA’s Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems program.
The technology may not remain in the lab for long. The University of Michigan has begun seeking patent protection as a step toward commercialization.