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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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