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June 30, 2008

Spy Bugs: The next generation of surveillance?

Posted: 02:18 PM ET


The technology has been around for years to control animals' movements by implanting electrodes into their brains. The concept is tried and true on things from rats to sharks. At one point it was proven that rats could be used to help on search and rescue missions by adding a backpack camera to the equation. Larger animals can handle heavier equipment, but if placed in a sensitive situation, they could be easily detected. The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for a solution.DARPA    HIMEMS Program Logo shows the fly that may someday be on your wall

DARPA is continuing to harness natural animal motor skills in combination with artificial control systems, but is now looking into using smaller test subjects. The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) project is how DARPA plans to achieve this. The premise is to take a small, ordinary organism and transform it into a robot of sorts. By using insects, DARPA hopes to be able to hold greater control over a final destination, while at the same time utilizing the insects' natural fluid movements. The trick will be making control mechanisms and other equipment small and light enough for the insects to be able to handle them. The ability to guide the insects to a location with precision could allow them to accomplish tasks deemed too dangerous for humans. DARPA says on its web site that insects could be outfitted with sensors capable of transmitting information about air quality, or even devices to transmit sound. The insects could get close enough to a target to relay data otherwise unavailable.  The proverbial "fly on the wall" might actually turn out to be a fly on the wall.

            Researchers have come up with a way to implant tiny controlling devices into a moth during its early developmental stages. The moth then matures around the implants, becoming one with the devices. With the implants in place, researchers can then begin the controlled movement process. Techniques to control movement could include direct muscle stimulation or neural stimulation that would tell the insect which muscles to move. GPS and ultrasonic signals are some of the technologies being investigated to guide insects to their destinations.

            HI-MEMS is a long way off from being ready to throw the robo-insects into mainstream use. Technology issues, costs, and environmental hazards have to be sorted out before the insects will be ready to go out in the field. Until then, spy bugs may be a thing of the future, but the technology coming out of the project is in the now.

 Katie Glaeser, CNN

Filed under: robotics • science

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S Callahan   June 30th, 2008 2:56 pm ET

lol i was trying to vision myself swatting that 'fly on the wall'

Good article, i had read of this some time back and was under the impression that it was already in use....hmmm
I think the idea of rats/mice being utilitzed in this way is commendable because of the ability to locate life (ie China's recent quakes would have greatly benifited from this)...

Bob   June 30th, 2008 3:40 pm ET

My luck I'd squash the thing just as he was finding me...

Bill   June 30th, 2008 5:05 pm ET

Are microbombs next on the list of insect implants? How about some sort of viral or bacterial disease spread by these bugs? If they can control the insect movements, then they could place anything they wanted anywhere they want. Miniaturization run rampant. Spy bugs? OK. Weapons of war? Nope. Who knew that Big Brother would turn out to be a gnat?

chris   June 30th, 2008 5:17 pm ET

I could see the army's idea of controll is some rat having seizures on the floor. But seriously, if there are 600 nueral connections needed to control walking movement, its inconceivable to put a self powered remote controled cpu having the parasite effect to control each nueron without having something that looks like a ridiculous tumor poping out of a rats head. I could amost see a computer taking place of the brain altogether, but it would be incapable of sustaining the life of the rat with the technology we curently have. Just build a robot rat.

oidboy   June 30th, 2008 7:46 pm ET

BS any ultrasmall spies will be man made

Joe Cracchiolo   June 30th, 2008 8:11 pm ET

Facinating article ! Spy bugs in our future...who knew that bugs could play such an important part in our human experience....when most of us think of bugs as a nuisance, instead of an ally in human progress.

Timothy Jarvis   June 30th, 2008 9:57 pm ET

Insects now, people later.

C. Miller   June 30th, 2008 11:16 pm ET

Very interesting story! Another reason to hate bugs. However...I really like the potential of the help it could bring to disaster areas.

S Callahan   July 1st, 2008 5:46 pm ET

I thought about this idea and if it works for the bugs..whose to say it can't benifit mankind down the road (ie: paralyzed; muscle or movement disorders, nuerological diseases (eliminating the shakes for those with Parkinson, etc).....the potential of this research can be unlimited......
lol...i squished a bug at work ..with the thought..hmmm oh better not go

DeathWyrmNexus   July 3rd, 2008 7:34 pm ET

There is something ultimately creepy about zombifying/roboticizing life to suit our ends. Does make you wonder what they will actually do with such things.

Franko   July 3rd, 2008 8:41 pm ET

Timothy Jarvis: "Insects now, people later."

Bit by Bit, Byte by Byte, MegaPixel by MegaPixel . .. ... ....
We won't need sloppy government manipulation.
Let the implanted electrodes, in your neck, do the navigating !

Dave   July 7th, 2008 9:56 pm ET

Will these critters gather around animal crackers?

james butteri   July 9th, 2008 2:54 pm ET

i am on record for picking the new orleans flood- happening and time of season-see butch in grand island for verification-the general weather patterns showed me disturbances- west- and pacific-but now seem to indicate a cat 5 hurrycane for tampa fla and below at point of winter (temp conversion) september october-i wanted to be on record-jrb-send me a reward

E   July 12th, 2008 9:52 pm ET


Jer   July 14th, 2008 3:11 pm ET

If you have read "Prey" and "Light of Other Days"
this is the evolution process of micro spying.
Just wait until DARPA taps into the quantum mechanics
field. (if they haven't already). People will go insane.

DARPA is an engine of creation (so to speek)

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Mekhong Kurt   October 4th, 2010 11:08 am ET

I'm coming to this story mighty late, upwards of two years after it was posted, but what the heck.

E, did you ever think about spaces too small even for the smallest dog? Mine cave-ins, building collapses, earthquake-hit areas, etc. come to mind, in which scenarios a person may indeed be alive, but undetectable by a dog (because it can't get close enough, or there are other scents interfering, etc. However, a tiny wired insect might just be able to get far enough into tiny spaces to detect there's a survivor (or survivors), and people would know where to dig to try to save those people.

Without getting off into moral questions, intelligence operations are another obvious beneficiary. Remember the old line, "If we could just have a fly on the wall in the inner sanctum of the Kremlin"? Well - could be a done deal!

Even battlefield surveillance might be possible. I'm sure all of us would rather lose a whole squadron of "Super Flies" than have even a single troop hurt or killed, if Super Flies might help prevent that from happening.

There are areas where moral and ethical questions are, rightly, unavoidable. Corporate espionage is one. (I had a couple of chances to work as a corporate spy many years ago, and turned both down cold. I just couldn't justify it even a tiny bit.) And how about spying on employees? - I don't mean justifiable monitoring of employee behavior (such as checking to see that some guy isn't using company time and equipment to surf porn sites or otherwise waster time and resources). I mean having that fly on the wall in the company cafeteria, for instance. Another is one spouse spying on another, or a parent spying on a child (or vice versa), etc.

I think I remember reading quite recently that DARPA is continuing to push forward with this stuff, for what that's worth.

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