PORTLAND, Ore. -- Cyborg insects with embedded microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) will run remotely controlled reconnaissance missions for the military, if its '"HI-MEMS" program succeeds. Hybrid-Insect MEMS--a program hatched earlier this year at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa)--aims to harness insects the way horses were harnessed by the cavalry.
"We have used horses for locomotion in wars," according to Darpa's description by its program manager, Amit Lal. "The HI-MEMS program is aimed to develop technology that provides more control over insect locomotion, just as saddles on horseshoes are needed for horse-locomotion control."
Darpa cites that, historically, elephants have also been used for locomotion in wars, that pigeons have been used for sending covert messages, that canaries have been used to detect gases in coal mines, and that bees have been used to locate lands mines. Now it's the moths and beetles turn to report for duty, just as dogs have already done.
Three research groups at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boyce Thompson Institute were awarded funding by Darpa earlier this year, when the HI-MEMS program kicked off, and are expected to report preliminary results during each annual review of the three-phase fundamental research-and-development program. There could be a fourth phase at the end--if the program is a success--that transitions the technology of breeding insect battalions to the military.
"Michigan is focusing on horned beetles, while MIT and Boyce Thompson are working with large moths," said Darpa spokesman Jan Walker. "The program's first major milestone is scheduled for January 2008, when the contractors have to demonstrate controlled, tethered flight of the insect."
The final milestone at the end of phase three will be flying a cyborg insect to within five meters of a specific target located some one hundred meters away using remote control or a global positioning system (GPS). If HI-MEMS passes this test successfully, then Darpa will probably begin breeding in earnest. Insect swarms with various sorts of different embedded MEMS sensors--video cameras, audio microphones, chemical sniffers and more--could then penetrate enemy territory in swarms to perform reconnaissance missions impossible or too dangerous for soldiers.