Cyborg insects could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields, in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home
Today, many people fear US government surveillance of email and cell phone communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase the paranoia.
By Nick Turse
Biological weapons delivered by cyborg insects. It sounds like a nightmare scenario straight out of the wilder realms of science fiction, but it could be a reality if a current Pentagon project comes to fruition.
Right now, researchers are already growing insects with electronics inside them. They’re creating cyborg moths and flying beetles that can be remotely controlled. One day, the US military may field squadrons of winged insect/machine hybrids with on-board audio, video or chemical sensors. These cyborg insects could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields, in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home, and transmit detailed data back to their handlers at US military bases.
Today, many people fear US government surveillance of email and cell phone communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase the paranoia. Imagine a world in which any insect fluttering past your window may be a remote-controlled spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more frightening is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with “bio weapons”.
For the past 50 years, work by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the Pentagon’s blue skies research outfit – has led to some of the most lethal weaponry in the US arsenal: from Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator drones and stealth fighters and bombers to Tomahawk cruise missiles and Javelin portable “fire and forget” guided missiles.
For the past several years, DARPA has funneled significant sums of money into a very different kind of guided missile project, its Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS) program. This project is, according to DARPA, “aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems [MEMS] inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis”. Put simply, the creation of cyborg insects: part bug, part bot.
Bugs, bots, borgs and bio-weapons
This past August, at DARPA’s annual symposium - DARPATech – HI-MEMS program manager Amit Lal, an associate professor on leave from Cornell University, explained that his project aims to transform “insects into unmanned air-vehicles”. He described the research this way: “[T]he 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.” In other words, micro-electronics are inserted at the pupal stage of metamorphosis so that they can be integrated into the insects’ bodies as they develop, creating living robots that can be remotely controlled after the insect emerges from its cocoon.
According to the latest reports, work on this project is progressing at a rapid pace. In a recent phone interview, DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker said, “We’re focused on determining what the best kinds of MEMS systems are; what the best MEMS system would be for embedding; what the best time is for embedding.”
This month, Rob Coppinger, writing for the aerospace trade publication Flight International, reported on new advances announced at the “1st US-Asian Assessment and Demonstration of Micro-Aerial and Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technology” – a Pentagon-sponsored conference. “In the latest work,” he noted, “a Manduca moth had its thorax truncated to reduce its mass and had a MEMS component added where abdominal segments would have been, during the larval stage.” But, as he pointed out, Robert Michelson, a principal research engineer, emeritus at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, laid out “on behalf of DARPA” some of the obstacles that remain. Among them were short insect life-spans and the current inability to create these cyborgs outside specialized labs.
DARPA’s professed long-term goal for the HI-MEMS program is the creation of “insect cyborgs” capable of carrying “one or more sensors, such as a microphone or a gas sensor, to relay back information gathered from the target destination” – in other words, the creation of military micro-surveillance systems.
In a recent email interview, Michelson – who has previously worked on numerous military projects, including DARPA’s “effort to develop an “Entomopter” (mechanical insect-like multimode aerial robot)” – described the types of sensor packages envisioned, but only in a minimalist fashion, as a “[w]ide array of active and passive devices”. However in “Insect Cyborgs: A New Frontier in Flight Control Systems,” a 2007 article in the academic journal Proceedings of SPIE, Cornell researchers noted that cyborg insects could be used as “autonomous surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles” with on-board “[s]ensory systems such as video and chemical”.
Surveillance applications, however, may only be the beginning. Last year, Jonathan Richards, reporting for The Times, raised the specter of the weaponization of cyborg insects in the not-too-distant future. As he pointed out, Rodney Brooks, the director of the computer science and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, indicated that the Pentagon is striving toward a major expansion in the use of non-traditional air power – such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyborg insects – in the years ahead. “There’s no doubt their things will become weaponized,” he explained, “so the question [is]: should they [be] given targeting authority?” Brooks went on to assert, according to The Times, that it might be time to consider rewriting international law to take the future weaponization of such “devices” into account.
But how would one weaponize a cyborg insect? On this subject, Robert Michelson was blunt: “Bio weapons.”