Why make tiny flying drones when you can fly REAL insects by remote-control? In 2006, DARPA asked US scientists to submit "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs"–tiny flying robots that can perform surveillance in dangerous territory. One there was a big problem: Since they couldn’t carry much fuel, they couldn’t stay in the air very long. The solution? Use real bugs.
In the February 16th edition of the Observer, Emily Anthes quotes DARPA engineer Amit Lal as saying, "Proof of existence of small-scale flying machines is abundant in nature in the form of insects."
All DARPA had to do was figure out how to control their movements. One of the best candidates for this is beetles, but scientists didn’t understand the specific nerve pathways and brain circuits involved in beetle flight.
In its quest for answers, DARPA held a sort of international science fair, and electrical engineer Michel Maharbiz took up the challenge: He and his students poked a needle through a beetle’s exoskeleton and threaded a thin steel wire into each hole. They made another set of holes over the muscles which control flight.
Stimulating these muscles caused the beetle’s right wing to start beating with more power, making the insect veer left. They put another wire into the left flight muscle; they would use it to steer the beetle to the right. The loose ends of all these wires were plugged into a package of electronics that they mounted with beeswax on the beetle’s back. This "backpack" included all the equipment Maharbiz needed to wirelessly send signals to the beetle’s brain: a miniature radio receiver, a custom-built circuit board and a battery.
Maharbiz says he expects his bugs to be used as a kind of insect air force, in routine military operations abroad, not to track US citizens.
Neuroscientists Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo are selling low cost kits that will make these insect control techniques available to everyone. They suggest you start with a common cockroach, because it is similar to the beetles they’ve been experimenting with. Instead of spraying them or putting out poisonous bait, perhaps you can "persuade" them–using remote control–to leave your kitchen and go next door.
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