Machine Design

"Private Moth reporting for duty, sir!"

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) imagines an army of remote-controlled insect-cyborg scouts.

To realize the dream, it's soliciting research proposals for the requisite technology through the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program.

The insects would be fitted with sensors and a wireless transmitter that could let them send data on conditions in places inaccessible to human troops. The goal of the program is to produce a sensor-enabled insect with a 100-yd range that could get within 5 yd of a target using electronic remote control and GPS technology.

The specifications for the cyborg-insect project have not been determined, says a Darpa spokeswoman. However, it may be possible to use insects as "micro unmanned air vehicles" in areas humans can't reach or that are too dangerous. For example, the insects could collect data on explosives inside buildings or caves and transmit it to their operators.

The use of insects for fact-finding tasks isn't new. But previous research found that feeding, mating, and tempera-ture-change responses prevented insects from performing reliably. The HI-MEMS project could correct these irregularities by inserting some sort of "control interface" into the insect at selected stages of its development.

"For example, moths and butterflies transform from eggs, to larvae, to caterpillars, and finally to flying adults," states the Darpa document. "Through each metamorphic stage, the insect body goes through a renewal process that can heal wounds and reposition internal organs around foreign objects, including tiny MEMS structures that might be present."

While flying insects such as moths are of great interest, hopping and swimming candidates are acceptable, as well. The cyborg-insect must also be able to remain still at a target area for indefinite periods or until it receives a prompt from its handler. Among the gear it might carry are a gas sensor, microphone, and video camera.

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