Insect Cyborg Sentinels: DARPA’s Dream for Remote Control Bugs Generates Buzz

Since before the dawn of time, man has relied on his animal brethren. But technology threatens to make animals obsolete. The car replaced the horse-drawn carriage. E-mail murdered millions of carrier pigeons. And before we had JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic, we relied primarily on penguins.

Today, science is bringing animals and technology back into harmony. Yesterday, at 5:23 PM, super secret government agents working in a subterranean laboratory six miles below Area 51, breathed life into an army of tiny six-legged Frankensteins. 70% living thing, 30% machine, 100% badass, the Pentagon’s army of insect cyborgs will soon be secretly spying through a window near you.

Hahaha, very funny—now let’s get serious. From this point forward, I am leaving all fictional embellishments and exaggerations behind and only reporting the truth of the matter. And, believe me, the truth is plenty bizarre on its own.

The United States Department of Defense has a pretty famous agency called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) whose primary goal is to create new technology for the government and military. As you might imagine, this agency funds some pretty interesting research at various universities and institutions across the country.

One of DARPA’s programs is called—brace yourself—Hybrid Insect Microelectromechanical Systems (HI-MEMS). So what on earth does that mean? As the HI-MEMS program says on its web site, their goal is to develop “tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis.”

In other words, DARPA is trying to fuse living insects with tiny electronic implants. Why?

“The goal of the MEMS, inside the insects, will be to control the locomotion by obtaining motion trajectories either from GPS coordinates, or using RF, optical, ultrasonic signals based remote control. The control of locomotion will be investigated using several approaches. These include direct electrical muscle excitation, electrical stimulation of neurons, projection of ultrasonic pulses simulating bats, projection of pheromones, electromechanical stimulation of insect sensory cells, and presentation of optical cues with micro-optical visual presentation. The intimate control of insects with embedded microsystems will enable insect cyborgs, which could carry one or more sensors, such as a microphone or a gas sensor, to relay back information gathered from the target destination.”

Let’s parse this.

Step 1: combine living insect with tiny electronic chip.

Step 2: Figure out how to make that chip control the insect’s movement.

Step 3: Use the remote-controlled insect cyborg as a means of military surveillance.

Well that’s certainly intriguing, but just how feasible are these goals? It turns out researchers have made some surprising advances.

At Cornell University’s Laboratory for Intelligent Machine Systems, among other labs, electrical engineers have not only been able to control the wing movements of hawk moths using direct electrical stimulation, they have created devices that harvest the energy produced by the moth’s own vibrations during flight. If these devices could be improved to power the kind of very tiny GPS sensors, cameras and microphones that would be useful for military surveillance, the moths could be sent out as self-sufficient spies, easily accessing areas humans never could. What’s more, other Cornell researchers are developing a means of temporarily paralyzing the moths at a routine pit stop. Let’s say you needed the moth to stay still while you collect some data: you could give it a quick injection of spider venom—just enough to paralyze it—and then another higher dose to excite it and send it on its way again.

Adult female Hawk Moth (Manduca sexta)

Here’s a video of the hawk moth and energy harvesting device by Tim Reissman of Cornell:

And a video by New Scientist:

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have just published a remarkable study describing how they remotely controlled free flying beetles. After implanting tiny electronic chips into the brains and muscles of adult Green June beetles and Giant Flower beetles, the researchers were able to initiate and stop flight, as well as make the beetles change direction and altitude. Interestingly, no one knows the specific neural pathways involved in the beetles’ flight. The implants stimulate relatively large areas of the brain, yet somehow enable a relatively sophisticated level of control.

The moths and beetles with which researchers have achieved the greatest success so far are pretty giant, as far as insects go. The Giant Flower beetle, for example, can grow as large as a human palm. So they’re not exactly the most inconspicuous surveillance units.


Giant Flower Beetles (Credit: pet_insects, photobucket)

Here’s a video of the beetles in controlled flight at Berkeley:

What’s perhaps more promising is the kind of information scientists are learning from this fantastical synthesis of insect and machine. First, researchers are getting access to data about living things they have never had before. Tiny chips that can measure the internal changes in insects as they go about their normal mating and feeding behaviors in the wild would prove invaluable for biologists. And the need to build machine parts small enough for insects to carry is pushing researchers to build smaller, lighter and more efficient electronics—with applications far beyond the insect world and DARPA’s dream of a buzzing surveillance squad.


6 responses to “Insect Cyborg Sentinels: DARPA’s Dream for Remote Control Bugs Generates Buzz

  1. I feel sorry for the people who invent stuff like this.
    They may be bright minds, but they lost their souls. Gives a clue what they”ll create when they keep on developing (nano-) chips to implant in human beings. Turns my stomach/

  2. It’s advances like this that will allow our species to continue. Survival of the human machine will require us to move out among the stars. And frankly our frail forms wont allow us to do so. Living machines that think and act and have our ideals are our only hope.

  3. Reality Checquered

    I’m more concerned about how ethically they’ve treated the beetles and moths. Tech is just tech; this is *cool* tech, with a lot of potential for both help and harm in a million applications. What’s important is how each individual researcher and user applies it and interacts.

  4. i personaly think its sick its jst the step in the direction of people its time to speak out agianst it while we still can

  5. How do u get them out once u get them in or kill them

  6. People and DARPA should really think on where this technology is going. One thing is animals helping humans such as carrier pidgeons, mules, horses, and etc. Implanting and taking control of another source of life is cruel. Whether, it helps human kind or not, it does not matter. For every newborn thing in this world is precious whether it be big or small, intelligent or not; every newborn thing is joy. Abusing that joy is displeasure and sure reckoning to us and to the environment. Think about newborn kittens or a child, it is always brings sure joy.

    Think about this: Would you like the same thing be done to you ? I bet not.
    You may say: They are just insects.

    Think about this: Whether, it be science or religion, in both theories you were created the same way.
    Now, tell me this if you can answer, “Will technology make better moral humans?”.
    Will technology appreciate life if it keeps going over other living things.
    Of course not!

    Anyway, I can understand using animals as a source of food and other things. However, doing to them something that is completely against their nature just does not seem right.

    [just extra thoughts]
    Think about this: If DARPA or members have the minds to do great things like this. Why not strive to make smaller components to create a small device that can hover around just like a moth and in the process coated with silicon layer an make it look like a moth. This way everybody is happy and it doesn’t make them look as lazy because if you really think about it. Although, it is a big advance it just seems a bit lazy for some reason, using something else and controlling it just to provide some type of surveillance. Its a bit lazy; strive to do better things in a much greater way because if someone is unhappy it is most likely not the best way. Consider, the opinions of others don’t just blow them off because all things can be done in a much greater way.

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