For context, I was reading about various research groups installing implants and cameras onto insects to use them as reconnaissance drones in high risk areas.

I’m wondering how feasible it would be, to upscale this idea, to genetically engineer insects to appropriate sizes and enhance them with the required bionics for control via software, and manipulation of their physical environment. Essentially piggybacking on a couple billion years of evolution to produce a versatile cyborg workforce that might be of use in the construction industry or maintenance.

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    $\begingroup$ Cybernetically enhanced or not if you want them bigger than the biggest extant insects you're going to have to give your robo insects lungs, a simple book lung of some sort would probably suffice but that's still going to be some serious gene engineering, crustacean of some sort would probably be quicker & easier, how about the Japanese spider crab or the Coconut crab, a bit of gene mod & selective breeding with either of those? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ Ah I didn’t even think of crustaceans, that broadens the scope quite a bit. I was thinking of different ways to increase oxygen, even going as far as having tanks of oxygen attached. I was also focusing on insects and arachnids because they are already able to produce various materials organically that might be modified for industrial uses. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 0:23

1 Answer 1


Well, the main issue here lies in how arthropods work: their growth is directly related to the amount of oxygen in the air. You see, arthropods have respiratory systems that basically takes oxygen directly to their tissues. That means their muscles virtually don't tire out, but it comes at the cost of being dependent on how much oxigen there is. In the case of insects, as their tracheas work through the diffusion of gasses, once they start to grow, it starts to become a problem, as less oxygen gets through, until they reach the size limit, which for land arthropods is that of a crustacean, the coconut crab, and, despite being strong enough to snap a bird's wing, they're rather slow. During the carboniferous earth, as oxygen was available in much higher concentrations, we could have animals like the 2 meter long arthropleura or the giant dragonfly Meganeura, but nowadays, not so much.

So basically to make insects grow without slowing down you'd need to either 1- bioengineer them to have entirely different respiratory and circulatory systems to match more those of vertebrates, allowing for bigger growth, or 2- alter them to allow for indefinite molting, raising them in oxygen rich environments and sticking oxygen tanks to their breathing apparatuses once they had to leave to the outside. Neither sound that effective for mass production. I'd recommend instead doing what scientists already are doing: researching insects and other arthropods to integrate their special abilities into robots, such as drones that employ the dragonfly flying abilities or rescue robots capable of compressing themselves as roaches. Those are easier to produce, take less time to be ready and don't need oxygen tanks stuck to them

Note: to use normal sized insects, it's already being considered in the form of cyborg beetles and roaches, maybe with more technological, smaller implants. However this can be considered unethical, as you're basically forcing the animals to do what you want by essentially hijacking their bodies, and the concept of being a passenger aboard your own meatsuit is quite the theme for a Sci fi horror story in itself.

Edit- sorry, it is true that tracheas are exclusive to insects and other arthropods have other different types of respiratory system, and my answer seemed to say so otherwise, however I decided to focus on insects in this question simply due to their wide distribution, the already existing research being conducted on them for your purposes and the fact they're the only arthropod group capable of flight.

  • $\begingroup$ :%s/arthropod/insect/g -- Many arthropods (e.g., lobsters or crayfish) have gills, others have book lungs (e.g., spiders). Tracheae are specific to insects. You may have noticed that lobsters and crabs can get quite big. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP that is true, however, much alike as I mentioned with the coconut crab, the largest species also tend to be the slowest (see how the Japanese spider crab is giant, but slow moving and basically unable to sustain itself out of the water). The other main reason is that we're yet to see any studies on the use of lobsters for anything other than exquisite cuisine. And I decided to focus on insects rather than other kinds of arthropods due them simply being the easiest ones to apply this concept (no need to use a centipede when a roach can do) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer. I can't remember at the moment where I read/watched a cow meat farm where they literally just grew the parts of the body they wanted with a completely artificial brain that plugged into the tissues nervous system just provided enough input into the muscles to grow. made for a creepy image, but unless someone has an argument that a muscle has more consciousness than say a leaf I think it gets through some moral barriers. Also creates ample opportunity for exploring projecting human ethics/perceptions onto other creatures/things. Again thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Rusty
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 20:37

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