Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dragonfly to “Robobug”... Where is Science Taking Us?

Picture that you’re a reporter for the Times and you’re at the garden party of some large conglomerate CEO who you know is into some shady business… As you shoulder your way among the glitter, smiles and chatter, you notice that the CEO is having a serious discussion in the corner by the freezias with a burly man whose suit stretches tautly over his barrel frame like an alligator’s skin. The CEO looks pale and brushes his hand nervously across his face. You strain to hear just a snippet of their tense conversation but fail to catch anything. Then, you glimpse a dragonfly hovering behind them rather persistently. If it only had a built-in microphone, you think…

The possibility is plausible, or already exists.
Inside this insect will be a computer chip that was implanted when the creature was still a pupa, in the cocoon, meaning that the dragonfly’s entire nervous system can be controlled remotely. The dragonfly arouses no suspicion while it beams video and other information back to its master via what its developers call a “reliable tissue-machine interface.”

No agency admits to having deployed insect-sized spy drones but a number of U.S. government and private entities admit they are trying, reports Rick Weiss of the Washington Post (Vancouver Sun, October 13, 2007). “Some federally funded teams are even growing live insects with computer chips in them to mount spyware on their bodies and control their flight muscles remotely,” says Weiss. He reports that these “robobugs” could potentially “follow suspects, guide missiles to targets or navigate the crannies of collapsed buildings to find survivors.”
This isn’t a new development. Unsophisticated robotic fliers were used by the military since World War II. Thirty years ago the CIA created the “insectothopter”, a mechanical “dragonfly” that ran on gasoline. It flew but didn’t do much else.

Only recently have scientists come to understand how insects fly. Researchers at Cornell University demonstrated that dragonflies accomplish the biomechanical feat of flight by adjusting the relative motions of their front and rear wings to save energy while hovering. Both the California Institute of Technology and Vanderbilt University researchers have built “microbat ornithopters” that fit in the palm of your hand. In July 2007 a Harvard University team developed a realistic fly-like robot, whose synthetic wings buzzed at 120 beats a second. However, the fly had to be tethered for power. Then, In August of 2007 Japanese researchers demonstrated radio-controlled fliers with four-inch wingspans that resemble hawk moths. Yet others are making fliers that run on chemical fuels instead of batteries like Robert Michelson’s Microflyer or “entomopter”. "Microflyers need to be nimble, fearless, safe and survivable in order to be successful," says Dr. Samuel Blankenship, a principal research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and coordinator of the Georgia Tech Focused Research Program for Microflyers (“entomopters”). "The range of applications for a self-piloted, multi-mode tiny machine is truly great."

As with many engineering marvels, the initial applications for the microflyers will be for the military. However, Blankenship sees civilians, such as police and fire officials, scientists and farmers, as the ultimate users of this technology.

Weiss reports that some current research by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) involves the insertion of computer chips into moth pupae (the stage between caterpillar and flying adult) then hatching them into healthy “cyborg moths”. In an article entitled, “Can Cyborg Moths Bring Down Terrorists?” Times Online quoted Rod Brooks, director of the computer science and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is involved with the research, as saying that robotics was increasingly at the forefront of US military research, and that the remote-controlled moths, described by DARPA as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS, were one of a number of technologies soon to be deployed in combat zones. “This is going to happen," said Mr Brooks. "It’s not science like developing the nuclear bomb, which costs billions of dollars. It can be done relatively cheaply.”

“A bunch of experiments have been done over the past couple of years where simple animals, such as rats and cockroaches, have been operated on and driven by joysticks, but this is the first time where the chip has been injected in the pupa stage and ‘grown’ inside it,” Brooks added, saying that the military would increasingly rely on ‘semi-autonomous’ devices, including ones which could fire.

In response to moral and ethical challenges over whether these should be given targeting authority, Brooks spoke of the increasingly blurred distinction between creatures – including humans – and machines, “Biological engineering is coming. There are already more than 100,000 people with cochlear implants, which have a direct neural connection, and chips are being inserted in people’s retinas to combat macular degeneration. By the 2012 Olympics, we’re going to be dealing with systems which can aid the oxygen uptake of athletes…There’s going to be more and more technology in our bodies, and to stomp on all this technology and try to prevent it happening is just… well, there’s going to be a lot of moral debates,” he said.

The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems is a Darpa Project with the goal of "developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis" and with its primary application as surveillance. One example is the creation of camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip for easy control.

So, where is all this wonderful science leading us?

Amy Stone, in an excellent article in Research Horizons (Georgia Institute of Technology), summarizes the uses of microflyers such as the entomopter, which include:

  • Kill harmful insects
  • Crawl or fly down smokestacks to measure emissions
  • Monitor concentrations of chemical spills
  • Look over the next hill in combat situations
  • Maneuver through buildings looking for survivors after a disaster
  • Fly spy missions, either outside or indoors
  • Measure ammonia concentration in agriculture
  • Track wild animal herds
  • Toys
I was interested to see that Stone didn't provide these potential uses in any particular order. Did she do it on purpose? I find that how a scientific discovery is used stems from and is ultimately driven by one of two diametrically opposing views: fear and hope. More on this in another post...

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Nuvein Foundation said...

Sounds like bionic woman. Except after many years and many $$$ of experimentation.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Who would have thought science advances this far? They can certainly be used as secret listening devices..unless someone hits them with a rolled up newspaper.

sfgirl said...

Nuvein Foundation: That is definitely where we're going! Guess, I should watch the show!

Jean-Luc: LOL! That's they're one weakness... and another reason to have a cat!

Anonymous said...

Yes, leave one of these to Tony (the tiger). They won't last long ... and maybe he needs more iron in his diet.

SolShine7 said...

Yeah, I heard about this. Kinda freaky.

sfgirl said...

good word, solshine7. Isn't it true, that even the loftiest and noblest of discoveries or developments in science must irrevocably suffer the mediocrity of myopic or fear-driven application?... Our actions are limited only by our vision.