- The Washington Times - Friday, April 4, 2008

In high school, I read a book of science fiction in which great, flapping venomous bats were grown in vats in laboratories and sent out to attack enemies in war.

We aren’t there yet, but DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — is working on it. Or something similar, anyway.

The idea is to develop insects with electronic circuitry inside them so that, among other things, their movements can be controlled remotely. These will be put to use in war: militarized bugs.

The program is called HI-MEMS, or Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical System.

From DARPA’s Web site: “The HI-MEMS program is aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis. These early stages include the caterpillar and the pupae stages.

“Since a majority of the tissue development in insects occurs in the later stages of metamorphosis, the renewed tissue growth around the MEMS will tend to heal, and form a reliable and stable tissue-machine interface.”

DARPA, which uses the word “cyborgs” to describe the insect machines, says that the Global Positioning System (GPS) could be used to guide the creatures, which could be made to move via electrical stimulation of their muscles.

Researchers at Cornell University’s Laboratory for Intelligent Machine Systems also are working on it.

The laboratory’s Insect Cyborg Sentinels Project aims “to develop cybernetic insects for the purposes of living surveillance and reconnaissance micro-air vehicles, MAVs. By eliminating the energy needed for flight and focusing energy efforts on controller and sensor packages, a cybernetic MAV, or CMAV, can be harnessed for the purpose of long endurance stealth missions.”

In a curious way, the program makes sense.

Scientists, sometimes with military funding, have tried to build mechanical insects, with only limited success. Designing a bug from scratch is a bear of a problem. You have to invent functioning wings and a mechanism to power them, and find a power source. Batteries are heavy and don”t carry power for long flight. You can try to power a mech-bug with a beam of microwaves, but that works only in line of sight. You end up doing a bad job or reinventing a really good wheel.

So, consider a hornet. It already can fly beautifully. It is fast. It can hover. It already has a power source good for extended flight. Why design a third-rate bug from scratch when you can find a really good one in the garden?

Is it going to work? I don’t know. You can bet that the people at Cornell are smart, though, and miniaturization is a well-developed and advancing art. I wouldn’t bet against it.

What will these creatures be good for?

Friends with military interests tell me the mech-bugs would be good for battlefield surveillance. In the hands of a dictatorial government, they might be more useful against citizens.

Is that bug buzzing around your balcony looking for a mate, or is it watching you?

But people with military interests quickly see them as potential weapons, perhaps carrying positions that work in very small quantities or deadly bacteria.

Can you make one of these cyborg bugs kill an enemy soldier by crashing into him? DARPA doesn’t say, but everybody quickly thinks of it.

Think privacy protection through bug spray.

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