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.
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.
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.