The Claws Of This Cyborg Scorpion Can Be Controlled Remotely

Because smartphone-controlled cyborg cockroaches are apparently not enough, Michigan-based Backyard Brains has turned their attention to predatory arthropods — this time using an electrical current to remotely induce a scorpion to strike with its claws and tail.

These new scorpion experiments are an extension of Backyard Brains' s cockroach work. Their "RoboRoach" is an actual kit that enables users to surgically implant a live roach with three sets of electrodes and then control its movement with a smartphone app via a control unit worn on the roach's back. Yes, it's ethically dubious work, but the company says the educational "benefits outweigh the cost."

And now they're doing a similar thing to scorpions.

Popular Mechanics explains:

Why scorpions? "Very little is known about them," [Dylan] Miller says. "Compared to other animals, not a lot of research has been done, and the research that has been done has been primarily focused on their venom." Of course, that's not the only reason. "Well, they're cool… They got these big claws, these tails. They're built like tanks, stocky and heavily armored. And their behavior is just really fascinating too."

So far, Miller has performed surgeries on giant desert hairy scorpions, Asian forest scorpions, and red claw scorpions. Obviously, these creatures are more difficult to handle than giant cockroaches. To prepare these stinging critters for surgery, Miller first dunks them in ice water for 10-15 minutes, which puts them in a coma-like state. Then he takes modeling clay and affixes them to a piece of cardboard or plastic for a closer look under a microscope. The clay can't be too sticky, though. "I used Silly Putty once, and I gave the scorpion, well, a leg waxing," he says.

The team does the surgery with a thin, sharp lance, like the kind used by diabetics to check their blood sugar levels. Miller pokes a hole near a leg nerve ending and then inserts platinum iridium wire into the hole. Once the scorpion has recovered, Miller will typically run 2-3 volts for 100 milliseconds of alternating current into its leg using either the RoboRoach backpack or a desk-mounted function generator. Experiments are always conducted in an enclosed environment, such as a terrarium. "I don't want a potentially angry scorpion running around in the lab space," he explains.

As noted in the PopMech article, the team was originally looking at how ground vibrations are sensed by scorpions. These animals use vibrations and their tactile sense to navigate the world; a touch on the leg can indicate a threat, for example. To trigger these responses in the lab, an electrode, and a tiny remote-controlled function generator feeding a signal, is used to excite the leg nerves.

You can learn more about this twisted project at the Backyard Brains blog. And read Erik Schechter's entire article at Popular Mechanics.

Image: Backyard Brains