Shape of things to comeDARPA works on equipping insects with reconnaissance gear

Published 4 October 2007

DARPA hopes cyborg insects with embedded microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) will run remotely controlled reconnaissance missions for the military and law enforcement

We have reported on efforts at different labs to develop artificial insects for surveillance, reconnaissance, and detection missions. These mechanical insects would be small-size machines emulating some of the characteristics of insetcs (for example, walking on ceilings and walls, hovering in the air, etc.). Now, wouldn’t it be simpler to take real-life insects, equip them with surveillance and detection gear, and then send swarms of them on missions? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to know. The idea, then, is for cyborg insects with embedded microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) to run remotely controlled reconnaissance missions for the military, if, that is, the military’s HI-MEMS program succeeds. Hybrid-Insect MEMS, a program launched earlier this year at DARPA, aims to harness insects the way horses were harnessed by the cavalry. “We have used horses for locomotion in wars,” according to DARPA’s description by its program manager, Amit Lal. “The HI-MEMS program is aimed to develop technology that provides more control over insect locomotion, just as saddles on horseshoes are needed for horse-locomotion control.” DARPA cites that, historically, elephants have also been used for locomotion in wars, that pigeons have been used for sending covert messages, that canaries have been used to detect gases in coal mines, and that bees have been used to locate lands mines. Now it is the moths’ and beetles’ turn to report for duty.

EETimes’s Colin Johnson writes that three research groups at the University of Michigan, MIT, and Boyce Thompson Institute were awarded funding by DARPA earlier this year, when the HI-MEMS program kicked off, and are expected to report preliminary results during each annual review of the three-phase fundamental research-and-development program. There could be a fourth phase at the end — if the program is a success — which transitions the technology of breeding insect battalions to the military. “Michigan is focusing on horned beetles, while MIT and Boyce Thompson are working with large moths,” said DARPA spokesman Jan Walker. “The program’s first major milestone is scheduled for January 2008, when the contractors have to demonstrate controlled, tethered flight of the insect.” The final milestone at the end of phase three will be flying a cyborg insect to within five meters of a specific target located some one hundred meters away, using remote control or a global positioning system (GPS). If HI-MEMS passes this test successfully, then DARPA will probably begin breeding in earnest. Insect swarms with various sorts of different embedded MEMS sensors — video cameras, audio microphones, chemical sniffers, and more — could then penetrate enemy territory in swarms to perform reconnaissance missions impossible or too dangerous for soldiers.

Here is how law enforcemengt may use insects: Thomas Easton, a scientist and sci-fi writer, says that since moths are extraordinarily sensitive to sex attractants, it would make sense to give bank robbers money treated sex attractants rather than dye. “Then, a moth-based HI-MEMS could find the robber by following the scent,” Easton wrote.