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Cyborg Robotic Battle Bugs

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From the pages of the fantastic imagery of a 1980s style science fiction story comes a futuristic nightmare.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has embarked on a feverish new project to create cyborg battle bugs programmed for warfare.

Although it sounds like the project was culled from edited footage of old Twilight Zone episodes left on the cutting room floor, the technology is real, the goal achievable, and prototypes have already proven themselves in both the Chinese and Israeli military.

Cyborg and robo-insects all the buzz

Insects with internal electronics are not new. The Israelis have employed cyborgian insect spies to report back on suspected terrorist havens hidden in hovels within the Palestinian territory. Going one better, the Israelis have also tested-and used-100 percent robotic insects the size of dragonflies to spy on certain suspicious installations.

Armored flies, incendiary beetles, marauding moths…no, those aren't the nightmares of a frightened entomologist. They're future military and battlefield micro-surveillance weapons being drawn up by brilliant tech geeks in the basement labs of the Pentagon.  

Inspired by the exploits of the Israeli army and Mossad, the U.S. government has given the nod—and the funding—to embark on Americanized versions of cyborg battle bots.

The first generation of American remote-controlled insect spies could be ready for testing by the end of 2011 and for deployment within 12 months following that.

Applications seen for increased U.S. cities surveillance

The Department of Homeland Security has expressed an interest in the cyborg surveillance insects and so have certain law enforcement jurisdictions within some of America's major urban areas.

At the moment, targeted cities and towns along the southern border and over certain areas of Miami are being surveilled by modified military drones. The plan is to expand that surveillance. Some in the military, intelligence and Congress advocate—even urge—the expansion of surveillance to include literally every major urban area in America.

One argument that's held back such an intrusive plan is the expense. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not cheap. They also require frequent and expensive maintenance. The cost of keeping them fueled and in the air is also a consideration.

Enter cyborg insect swarms

The introduction of robotic or cyborgian insect drones equipped with high-powered miniaturized surveillance sensors can only add to the American populace's already growing sense of paranoia and distrust about government intrusions into their privacy. Yet, surprisingly, the civil rights organization ACLU recently gave its blessing to Florida's plan to use UAVs to surveille the populace across the entire state.

DARPA succeeds in meeting mission profiles

For those that seek comfort in the idea that a plan to weaponize insects and turn others into tiny spies in the skies, better review DARPA's history. For five decades DARPA has been the Pentagon's workhorse of "crazy ideas" brought to fruition. The military agency has churned out some of the most effective and deadly weapons in history including the amazing military battlefield robots now deployed with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, stealth drones armed with advanced generation Hellfire missiles, and the stunning smart missile series including the much lauded Javelin portable "fire and forget" guided missiles.

Cyborg insects with a sting

During the past decade, DARPA quietly turned its resources—which includes some of the best brains in the U.S.—towards developing and deploying an entirely new type of battlefield-intelligence weapon: hybrid insects. According to a DARPA press release, the Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS) program is "aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems [MEMS] inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis."

The bottom line is that bio-mechanical engineers will invade the nurseries of targeted bugs and implant miniaturized control systems in the pupae of developing insects. Thus the resulting entity will be part cybernetic, part organic—a cyborg.

In August of 2010, Amit Lal, associate professor of Cornell University and the HI-MEMS program manager, spoke at length about DARPA's plan to turn "insects into unmanned air-vehicles." Lal foresees varied applications and asserted that the "…HI-MEMS program seeks to grow MEMS and electronics inside the insect pupae. The new tissue forms around the insertions, making the bio-electronic interface long-lasting and reliable."

From birth the newly modified cyborgian insect soldier will be remotely controller by its "handlers" and follow mission profiles as living robots doing the bidding of its programmed directives.

Other than micro-surveillance capability, future cyborg battle bugs may be fully weaponized with offensive weapons. What weapon could fit into the body of an insect the size of a moth or beetle?

"Bio-weapons," stated Robert Michelson who's worked on a number of other DARPA projects including the agency's work on something called an "Entomopter"—a mechanized, flying insectoid type bot.

Michelson, during a 2010 interview, went on to wax poetic about the future of cyborgian battle bugs, but others feel uneasy about the prospects and the ethics.

One of DARPA's golden boys—researcher Robert Wood—wrote an article published in IEEE Spectrum describing the successful flight of "the first flight of an insect-size robot." [Only an American first, perhaps, as the Israelis already have staked a claim on the world's first.]

Wood, who works with a team at a Harvard research lab, have been burning the midnight oil happily creating tiny insect-like robots that Wood predicts will soon be supplied "with on-board sensors, flight controls, and batteries…to nimbly flit around obstacles and into places beyond human reach."

Wood and his team are enthusiastic and focused on getting the next generation of military weapons into the Pentagon's burgeoning arsenals as quickly as possible. DARPA is so pleased with the Harvard scientist that the agency singled him out as one of their 24 "rising stars." The recognition provided more than just praise. DARPA followed it up with a generous "young faculty awards" government grant.

The future according to DARPA

From the agencies mission protocols:  The "final demonstration goal is the delivery of an insect within five meters of a specific target located at a hundred meters away, using electronic remote control, and/or global positioning system (GPS)."

What some outside the agency are already calling "Frankenbugs," others see as a brilliant leap forward on the battlefield. Cyborg battle bugs will be difficult to detect and very difficult to defend against.

Dr. Strangelove would be jealous.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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