Monday, March 13, 2006

The U.S. military, facing problems in its efforts to train insects or build robots that can mimic their flying abilities, now wants to develop “insect cyborgs” that can go where troops cannot.

The Pentagon is seeking applications from researchers to help them develop technology that can be implanted into living insects to control their movement and transmit video or other sensory data back to their handlers.

In an announcement posted on government Web sites last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, says it is seeking “innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect cyborgs,” by implanting tiny devices into insect bodies while the animals are in their pupal stage.

As an insect metamorphoses from a larva to an adult, the solicitation notice says, its “body goes through a renewal process that can heal wounds and reposition internal organs around foreign objects, including tiny [mechanical] structures that might be present.”

The goal is to create technology that can achieve “the delivery of an insect within five meters of a specific target … using electronic remote control, and/or global positioning system. … In conjunction with delivery, the insect must remain stationary either indefinitely or until otherwise instructed [and] must also be able to transmit data from [Department of Defense] relevant sensors … [including] gas sensors, microphones, video, etc.”

The agency says it has encountered challenges in its efforts to train insects to detect explosives or other chemical compounds, and to mimic their flight and movement patterns using small robots.

Several years ago, DARPA began a $3 million project to train honeybees to find land mines. The solicitation last week said that did not succeed.

“These activities have highlighted key challenges involving behavioral and chemical control of insects. … Instinctive behaviors for feeding and mating — and also for responding to temperature changes — prevented them from performing reliably,” it says.

As far as the development of purely robotic or mechanical aircraft — so-called micro- or nano-unmanned aerial vehicles — the solicitation says that developing energy sources both powerful and light enough poses “a key technical challenge.”

Both sets of challenges “might be effectively overcome” by the development of insect cyborgs, the solicitation said.

The devices that DARPA wants to implant are Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS. MEMS technology uses tiny silicon wafers like those used as the basis for computer microchips. But instead of merely laying circuits, MEMS technology can cut and shape the silicon, turning the chip into a microscopic mechanical device.

The solicitation envisages the implanted device as a “platform” onto which “various microsystem payloads can be mounted … with the goal of controlling insect locomotion, sens[ing] local environment, and scaveng[ing] power.”

Implanting the devices during pupation is key, the document said, because “the insects are immobile and can be manipulated without interference from instinctive motion.”

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