In Guillermo Del Toro’s movie Cronos, an ancient device embodied in a scarab restores youth and vigor to the aged antique dealer who finds it. It also creates a taste for blood; near the end of the movie, the now young and voracious man licks the floor of a bathroom to get some of the good red stuff.
The 1993 film Robot Wars features giant robotic scorpions. And while not robotic in nature, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game put arachnids and buggers at the center of their science fictional universes. And who could forget Mothra?
Even when not roboticized, insects, especially giant ones, represent otherworldliness. Even though over a million species of insects exist on earth, and even though there are 1.6 billion times more insects than humans—that’s 10 quintillion for anyone who’s counting—the physical appearance, movements, and bizarre adaptations make insects seem alien, which partly explains why they give so many people the willies.
It might seem crazy, creepy, or just plain strange that robotics companies find inspiration in these creatures. Although once you put robot and insect together, they ironically become less alien, less cringe-worthy, and even beautiful. I never thought I’d be saying that about an insect, but that’s technology for you.
Steampunk inspires the beautiful robot insects created by artist Mike Libby, who orders (or occasionally collects himself) beetles, arachnids, butterflies, dragonflies, and other insect specimens from around the world and couples them with mechanical parts from watches, typewriters, and other machines. These insects serve as showpieces rather than functional robots, but the design and the idea are more than art. “Both biologists and engineers look to insect movement, design and social behavior to inspire new technology and applications,” says Libby in his artist’s statement. “Some of the most advanced aircraft is smaller than a dragonfly, and NASA scientists are making walking rovers and ‘swarm theory’ probes for planetary exploration. Technology is finding that the most efficient design features comes from natural systems.”
The sand flea robot by Boston Dynamics perfectly exemplifies Libby’s point. While the sand flea robot lacks the visual artistry of Libby’s creations, it surpasses them by leaps and bounds. It looks like a little dune buggy motoring along, but when it jumps, it gets air that’s anything but tiny.
Like a cat, the robot always lands on its wheels thanks to gyro stabilization—an axis and momentum-based orienting technique used by countless machines, from helicopters to motion picture camera systems. This system also stabilizes the onboard camera and keeps the sand flea level as it leaps. Fueled by carbon dioxide, this bot can jump 25 times before needing a refill. Its jumping ability, as well as its long-range GPS remote control and surveillance capabilities, make it particularly useful in war zones, especially those laden with land mines.
If remote controlling a sand flea robot somehow gets old, there’s DARPA’s remote-controlled beetle. This one’s a little different, as it involves an actual live beetle outfitted with pack that links up to its brain and wing muscles.
In watching these videos, I can’t help but feel sorry for the beetle, as its own impulses and ability to control its movements are overridden entirely. Here’s hoping it can’t feel fear. Or resentment or vengeance.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have done similar experiments on a Madagascar hissing cockroach (I think I’ll stick with the beetle, thanks) and the University of Michigan has developed a cyborg moth. House flies are next, with many more to come.
The last robotic insect development we’ll cover is arguably the closest we’ve gotten to achieving sentience in robots. Engineers from the universities of Sheffield and Sussex are working on uploading bees’ brains into flying robotic bodies, where they will be combined with software to create new, autonomous brains. Scientists aim to capitalize on naturally occurring capabilities such as sight, smell, and maneuverability, and they hope that these bees will be able to think, move, improvise, and adapt to new situations like real bees would. They’re also hoping that the robotic bees will help alleviate the declining bee population and its effects.
2015 is the target year for the first flight of the “cybee.” Classical music accompaniment will hopefully follow.
Such cyborg animals could investigate suspicious, dangerous, or tiny spaces. They could be used for surveillance—it’s even possible that the fly on the wall could actually be a spy. The part that scares me most, though, is the stinging potential of a cybee. Presuming their bodies are equipped with a stinger, it seems reasonable to predict that they wouldn’t lose their stingers after a single attack. And who knows what that sting would actually do or be (cue paranoid theories about miniscule tracking systems here). Also, it’s unclear whether the cybee would be more or less inclined to sting humans, but if it really can think and act accordingly, we might want to play nice and keep those flowers growing.