It might sound the stuff of nightmares, but giant cyborg beetles could soon be winging their way to a town near you, after scientists proved they can wire up insects and control them remotely.
Several labs across the world are trying to design robot insect swarms because the creatures are good at getting into nooks and crannies so could quickly locate earthquake survivors in piles of rubble, carry out surveillance or eavesdrop on criminals or terrorists.
But engineers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the University of California Berkeley have gone one step further.
Instead of creating robots that move like insects, they have shown it is possible to control insects themselves. Using electrodes and tiny electronic backpacks, they have shown they can develop a living machine whose flight and gait can be wirelessly controlled. The "biobots" could even replace drones as they would be far more agile and need no engineering to keep them in the air.
Writing in the journal Royal Society Inferface, the authors said: "Unlike man-made legged robots for which lots of tiny parts, sensors and actuators are manufactured, assembled and integrated, the insect-computer hybrid robots directly use living insects as nature's ready-made robot platforms."
Beetles are fitted with electrodes at specific parts of their legs, optic lobes and flight muscles which, when triggered by a radio signal, direct the insect to walk at a specific speed, take off, turn right or left and even hover in mid-flight.
"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, of the NTU School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who led the project.
"This technology could prove to be an improved alternative to remote-controlled drones as it could go into areas which were not accessible before.
"For example, it could be used in search-and-rescue missions as it could go into small nooks and crevices in a collapsed building to locate injured survivors."
The giant flower beetle, scientifically known as Mecynorrhina torquata, is about 75mm long and 8g in weight. It was chosen because, despite its size, it can lift relatively heavy payloads such as a small microphone and thermal sensor, crucial for search-and-rescue missions.
The microchip backpack is strapped on to the beetle using organic beeswax, which is harmless to the beetle's carapace (the upper section of the exoskeleton) and can be easily removed.
All the beetles in the project went on to live for their usual lifespan of five to six months.
Unlike typical remote-controlled synthetic drones, there is no need for constant human control as the beetle is able to maintain flight stability on its own. Human intervention is only needed to change the intended direction. And the electronics involved cost around US$7 ($10.25) making them far cheaper than drones.
The team have already shown it is possible to control the insects in an enclosed room, and now hope to test in larger areas.