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A micro air vehicle as proposed by the US Air Force, shown in a computer simulation.

Darpa Creating Super Bionic Insects

A micro air vehicle as proposed by the US Air Force, shown in a computer simulation.
Terrence Aym's image for:
"Darpa Creating Super Bionic Insects"
Caption: A micro air vehicle as proposed by the US Air Force, shown in a computer simulation.
Image by: U.S. Air Force.
© As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.,_US_air_force.jpg

The U.S. military Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has seen the future, and the future is bugs. Bionic bugs.

DARPA, the visionary arm of the Pentagon, is tasked with anticipating and shaping the battlefield of the future. Like the famous RAND corporation with a militant twist, DARPA has initiated such eye-popping projects in the past as robot super dogs, pilot-less interceptors, mind-reading technology for soldiers, invisibility projects and Buck Rogers-like space weaponry.

Now DARPA is working hard to establish an array of cybernetic insects. The program, "Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems" (HI-MEMS), is part of their Controlled Biological and Biomimetic Systems program and seeks to fuse mechanical micro-technologies to living insects creating a machine-bug amalgam. The microsystems that DARPA calls payloads will draw parasitic power from the insects, work with the insects nerve or muscles, and take control of the insect.

Zombie insect spies and battle bugs

DARPA sees a world—not too far in the future—where cyborgian insects will eavesdrop on enemy soldiers and enemy headquarters. So-called battle bugs are also being designed. It brings a whole new meaning to "bugging."

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 designed by brilliant tech geeks in secret Pentagon labs.

Those zombiefied insects will be remotely directed in a way that's similar to drone aircraft used in combat theaters today. DARPA already points proudly to past success with their interfacing project.

A now redacted 2010 DARPA press release stated: "Olfactory training of bees has been used to locate mines and weapons of mass destruction. The HI-MEMS program is aimed at developing technology to provide control over insect locomotion, just as reins are needed for effective control over horse locomotion."

Thus, Mankind has taken another great leap forward…from reining in stallions for transportation to reining in insects for spying.

Developing concept

Insects embedded with electronics have been around for awhile. The Israelis have employed cyborgian flies to track terrorists. Recently, dragonflies have been upgraded with microcircuits and used to spy on suspicious military installations.

Program Manager, Dr. Jack Judy enthusiastically stated: "The control of insect locomotion will be investigated using several approaches, including direct electrical muscle excitation, electrical stimulation of neurons, electromechanical stimulation of insect sensory cells, and presentation of optical cues with micro-optical visual presentation. Power extraction will be investigated using several approaches including thermo-electric converters, resonant piezoelectric and magnetic generators, and nonresonant broadband energy scavengers."

Wikipedia still carries as a footnote a link (Number 37) to the DARPA press release that no longer exists. Wikipedia quotes from it: "Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS). Microsystem Technology Office. DARPA, Web. 5 Mar 2010. Quote: '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.'"

During August of 2010, Amit Lal, a previous HI-MEMS program manager, outlined how DARPA planned to convert "insects into unmanned air-vehicles." Lal described various applications and claimed 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," states 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 robot.

Yet while Michelson's excited about the future of cyborgian battle bugs, others feel uneasy about the prospects and ethics. Some critics have dubbed the insects "Frankenbugs."

But DARPA is not alone in its quest to develop cyborgian insects in the name of national security. Other countries like Israel, China, Russia and Japan have embarked on their own HI-MEMS type programs.

The late Robert A. Heinlein envisioned an interstellar war with bugs in his classic science fiction novel, "Starship Troopers." As is often the case, science fiction has a habit of coming true—but always with a little bit of a twist.

In the real world, humans aren't fighting alien bug invaders, but creating them.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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