May 31, 2007 Cyborgs and bionic humans have long been the domain of science fiction with the concept popularised by the seventies TV series, Six Million Dollar Man, about a cyborg working for the OSI. As technological development funded by military spending has accelerated in recent times, we’ve seen the development of the bionic eye, the bionic hand and the bionic arm, with lots of work also being done in the area of exoskeletal robotics to help soldiers run faster and longer and carry heavy loads. Now it appears that we’re about to see the concept of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Cyborgs morph. Whilst UAVs have been among the most successful and high-profile innovations in military technology over the past decade, the arena of unmanned aerial technology is about to become a whole lot stranger as hybrid insect-machine "cyborgs" become a reality. The prospect of a remote controlled dragon-fly capable of transmitting video and other environmental data from the front-line still seems like the stuff of science-fiction, but research into hybrid insect-machines is accelerating under the auspices of DARPA.
DARPA first called for research proposals in the area of Hybrid-Insect-Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) interfaces in early 2006 and recent comments from Rod Brooks, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggest the relatively inexpensive price of conducting further studies could see this scenario realized sooner than most of us might think.
The latest research aims to integrate micro-systems within insects during their early stages of metamorphoses. Thus the insect would grow around its machine implant with the aim of delivering more reliable results than through the adhesive bonding of electromechanical systems to adult insects (ie. using a kind of "back-pack" that can be connected to the adult insect as the control interface).
Chemical "training" of insects and attempts to use neural interfaces to control insects has also been investigated but these approaches have faced difficulty in overcoming behavioral traits such as mating and feeding.
The perceived benefit of integrating the MEMS during the early stages of tissue growth is that the insect will heal wounds and re-align internal organs around these tiny foreign objects to form a reliable tissue-machine interface. The locomotion of the insect could then be controlled using one of several approaches including direct electrical muscle stimulation, electrical stimulation of neurons, projection of pheromones, stimulation of insect sensory cells and optical cues.
The specific goals of the DARPA proposal include the delivery of an insect to within five meters of a specific target located a hundred meters away using electronic remote control or GPS navigation, the ability to control the insect so that it remains stationary until otherwise instructed and the successful transmission of data pertaining to the local environment through video, microphones or other sensors. The project also aims to develop ways of "scavenging" the biological properties of the insect to power these capabilities. And its not just flying insects like moths that are being targeted in the new research. DARPA envisions that insects that hop and swim could also prove valuable in attaining these objectives.
While the reconnaissance capabilities of fully robotic unmanned miniature aircraft (dubbed MAV's) is also under development, the hybrid insect approach immediately suggests greater benefits in terms of natural camouflage and the ability to utilize the biological properties of the insect.
DARPA is calling for a collaborative approach to the project through multidisciplinary teams of engineers, physicists, and biologists working to develop the new field of insect cyborg engineering as well as uncovering new technologies utilizing insect biology and answering basic questions in biology.
Further reading can be found at the DARPA site