Cyborg insects have been scuttling and buzzing around for years, but now, researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have scaled the idea up to a turtle. With their concept system, a human driver could use a brain-computer interface (BCI) to send instructions to direct the movement of the turtle just by thinking about it.
BCI systems have been used to control wheelchairs, drones, prosthetic limbs, and even cars, but this seems to be the first time the technology has been applied to a live animal. If you were going to choose one creature to control with your mind, the maddeningly-slow plod of a turtle might not be at the top of your list, but the researchers picked this particular animal because of its relative smarts and the fact that its natural navigation system can be "hacked" fairly easily.
In the past, insects have been prime targets for this kind of research for similar reasons. Cockroaches have special sensory organs in their backsides that sense air flow to warn them of approaching predators, and stimulating these with electrical impulses is an effective "gas pedal." Similar signals to their antennae steers them left or right, and authorities could take advantage of this to direct them through disaster areas in search of survivors. Cyborg locusts, on the other hand, can be directed through mild heat patches on their sides due to their instinct to turn away from heat sources.
Turtles follow similar basic rules to get around. The animals can distinguish between different wavelengths of light and will tend to move towards white light, which they perceive as open space, while avoiding obstacles that may crop up in their way. This predictability makes them prime candidates for the cyborg treatment.
On the turtle's shell, the KAIST researchers propose mounting a system that consists of a camera, Wi-Fi transceiver, Raspberry Pi module, battery, servo motor, and a black semi-cylinder that surrounds the animal's head and only lets in a small window of light. Meanwhile, the human controller would don a head-mounted display (HMD) that shows a live feed from the turtle-mounted camera, and a BCI that reads their "thoughts" in the form of EEG signals. The system can pick "left" and "right" commands out of the brain, which moves the semi-cylinder up to 36 degrees in either direction, prompting the turtle to turn and walk that way.
Although turtles aren't the speediest of animals, the researchers say it's possible the system could find military use for reconnaissance and surveillance due to the animal's ability to move over a variety of surfaces indoors and out, as well as through shallow water.
The team's research was published in the Journal of Bionic Engineering.