Daily Archives: April 3, 2008

The Pentagon’s battle bugs to deliver bioweapons

Cyborg insects could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields, in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home

Asia Times | Apr 3, 2008

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.”

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Foreign investors lining up to take over Chicago’s Midway International Airport

Privatization of first major US airport attracts foreign interest

It remains unclear whether the effort will generate a backlash if a foreign firm is chosen, in light of security concerns raised after a failed effort by a Dubai group to take over major US ports.

AFP | Apr 2, 2008

by Mira Oberman

CHICAGO (AFP) – Foreign investors are lining up to bid to operate Chicago’s Midway International Airport, the first major US airport to be privatized under a federal initiative launched more than a decade ago.

City officials say six consortiums, which include firms from France, Australia, Germany, Canada and Spain, are vying to run Chicago’s secondary airport.

While many European airports were privatized years ago, all commercial airports in the United States are currently operated and owned by local or state governments.

Midway was the first major hub airport to apply for privatization approval since the US congress established a pilot program in 1996 to explore the use of private operators at commercial airports.

Yet it remains unclear whether the effort will generate a backlash if a foreign firm is chosen, in light of security concerns raised after a failed effort by a Dubai group to take over major US ports.

“This will surely generate debate since there may be perceptions about foreign ownership of sensitive or critical transportation properties like we saw with the Dubai port deal,” said Joe Schweiterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

The groups which have submitted qualifications statements are:

– Spain’s Abertis Infraestructuras SA, Australia’s Babcock & Brown Group and US-based GE Commercial Aviation Services;

– AirportsAmerica Group, consisting of US-based Carlyle Infrastructure Partners LP;

– Chicago Crossroads Consortium, consisting of Australia’s Macquarie Capital Group Limited and Macquarie Airports and US-based Macquarie Infrastructure Partners and Macquarie Infrastructure Partners II;

– Chicago First Consortium, consisting of Germany’s HOCHTIEF AirPort GmbH and HOCHTIEF AirPort Capital GmbH & Co and US-based GS Global Infrastructure Partners I, LP;

– Midway Investment and Development Corporation, consisting of Canada’s YVR Airport Services Ltd. and US-based Citi Infrastructure Investors and John Hancock Life Insurance Co;

– France’s Aeroports de Paris Management and US-based Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners and HMSHost Corporation.

The city said that once the firms are determined to be qualified, “the highest bid amount will be the only factor in determining who will operate the airport.”

“We are very enthused with the strong indications of interest we have received from teams wishing to operate Midway in what would be the first lease of a major US airport,” said Paul Volpe, the city’s chief financial officer.

A decision is expected in the next eight to 12 months.

The deal must be approved by federal regulators and 65 percent of the six airlines operating at the airport.

The private operator must also meet safety and security standards and the Transportation Security Administration will continue to oversee screening and airports security.

The 50-year lease is expected to raise between two and three billion dollars for the city.

But while the cash will be a welcome infusion, US municipalities have been wary of giving up control of airports which are often seen as their “crown jewels,” Schweiterman said.

The city will retain control over its primary airport, O’Hare, which handles 76 million passengers a year.

Midway’s five runways handled nearly 304,000 flights and more than 19 million passengers last year

Chicago is leading the nation in the privatization of city services.

It was the first city to lease a major piece of infrastructure in 2005 with a 1.8 billion dollar deal for the right to manage a key toll bridge for 99 years.

In February, the city offered up its 360,000 parking meters for lease after having rented out four of its parking garages to private operators.

It is also considering privatizing garbage collection and is trying to raise money by selling naming rights.

Merging Man and Machine to Reach the Stars

Space.com | Mar 28, 2008

By Jeremy Hsu

Robots and humans always seem to end up at odds, whether it’s battling over pieces of NASA’s budget or literally fighting in science fiction stories such as “The Matrix” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

Now a former NASA historian and an American University professor suggest that the future of space exploration could very well depend on a merging of metal and flesh.

Their new book “Robots in Space” (2008, The Johns Hopkins University Press) looks at the competing visions for robotic vs. human space exploration, and concludes that neither will get far beyond the solar system without one another.

That means humans may need to draw from the Sci-Fi realm yet again and morph into something new, like a cyborg, to head for distant stars.

What’s lacking

Human efforts dominated early space exploration because machines simply lacked the brainpower. Even Arthur C. Clarke, the visionary science fiction author who died recently, first imagined a network of geosynchrous communications satellites as space stations with human operators onboard.

German scientist and American space pioneer Wernher Von Braun drew support for human spaceflight from the Cold War rivalry and from pioneering themes of the American West. The public imagination was fired up by early speculation that planets such as Venus and Mars harbored Earth-like conditions for life — something that robotic explorers later found to be untrue.

“We were certainly interested in the fact that none of the spaceflight godfathers who talked about flying in space really focused on the robotics side,” said Roger Launius, National Air and Space Museum senior curator and co-author of “Robots in Space.”

Robotic capabilities gradually improved and allowed cheaper robotic missions to make long journeys to the outer planets. At the same time, near-Earth human programs such as the space shuttle and International Space Station racked up billions of dollars in unanticipated costs.

Many scientists now support robotic missions as cheaper alternatives to human missions, but human spaceflight advocates still dream of returning people to the moon and perhaps even going to Mars.

However, support for the dream of human spaceflight has fallen away with the end of the Cold War and the pioneering American West receding into historical memory. That leaves a gap in the public imagination that robotics has yet to fill.

“The lack of a compelling story associated with robotic spaceflight means that side of the equation has not been developed as well as the human side,” Launius said.

Suicide missions

Launius and co-author Howard McCurdy of American University argue that NASA needs to take a hard look at its real goals in space exploration. Among five major reasons they list to go into space — including scientific discovery, commercial applications, national security, geopolitical prestige, and survival of the species — only the last absolutely requires humans.

That blunt assessment is unintentionally echoed by the artificial intelligence Agent Smith of “The Matrix,” who sneers “Never send a human to do a machine’s job.” Smith may have a point despite his villainous nature, as robots increasingly become cheaper and safer proxies for humans on dangerous space missions.

“Nobody told Spirit and Opportunity [Mars Rovers] that they’re on a suicide mission,” Launius said. “If the objective is science, that’s all well and good.”

Human spaceflight advocates who want to see people get off Earth have a legitimate cause, according to the authors, but need to openly discuss that rationale instead of masking it.

“If objective is to become multi-planetary species, then we have to fly people,” Launius noted. “I wish we were a bit more honest about that.”

Funding human spaceflight based on survival of the species would be a hard sell, though, and may just get harder. Several national and online surveys have shown a trend where 18-24 year-olds largely oppose sending humans to Mars, citing reasons such as “too far and too much money” and the risks to astronauts.

On the other hand, many young adults express more enthusiasm over robotic missions to Mars, such as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

“What we find is that young people seem to be able to relate much more easily to robotic missions, and therefore get more excited about them,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, President and CEO of Dittmar Associates, Inc., who conducted some surveys.

Reality check

Perhaps the only thing that can inspire fresh zeal for space exploration comes from finding new Earth-like planets around other stars, according to Launius and McCurdy.

However, humans and robots can’t even attempt an interstellar journey yet. Robots lack the mental power and flexibility to conduct distant missions far from human handlers, while humans remain vulnerable to the effects of space radiation, aging, and other physical hazards in space travel.

A solution may arise from the vision of futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, who sees humans and robots eventually merging to combine the best traits of both. That’s not entirely a fantasy.

“In the process of enhancing yourself technologically, you’ve become a cyborg,” Launius said, listing glasses, hearing aids, pacemakers, and hip replacements as examples of technological aids people use daily. Launius and McCurdy also point out that NASA conducted studies on cyborg technologies in the 1960s.

The idea of human-robot hybrids is popular in science fiction, and most recently in the critically acclaimed show “Battlestar Galactica.” The show depicts humans fighting for survival against robot-like Cylons, but also examines what happens when certain Cylon models have biological parts and appear human.

“The humans in the show view the Cylons as machines and not entities which they should have any compassion or concern for,” Launius observed. That allows the humans to justify killing or torturing Cylons, although the line between human and Cylon has become blurred as the show enters its fourth and final season.

So the real question may not be if humanity reaches for the stars, but what it needs to become to do so.