Sam's Scientists Busy
Building Insect Army
By Lynda Hurst
03 April, 2006
A rocky foreign terrain. Platoons
of remotely controlled cyborg-insects sniffing out landmines, transmitting
their location back to human handlers.
Can you picture it? No?
Well, that's the difference between you and the scientists, "extreme
thinkers," at DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency,
where soldier insects are already in the works.
The agency's mandate is to
maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military through
"far-future" thinking. Its cutting-edge, some would say lunatic-fringe,
researchers give new meaning to the concept of brainstorming.
But way back at the dawn
of computer time, circa 1969, they developed the precursor to the Internet,
known as the ARPANET. They invented GPS, global positioning systems.
They're credited, in fact, with half the major innovations in the high-tech
industry, not to mention the 120-plus technologies they've come up with
for the military, everything from the now standard M-16 rifle to stealth
But back to the bugs.
DARPA's current big idea
is to implant tiny microsystems into insects at the pupa stage of their
development, when they can be "integrated" into their internal
A step or three later, they
could be turned into miniature unmanned vehicles for use on military
missions "requiring unobtrusive entry into areas inaccessible or
hostile to humans." Osama Bin Laden's cave, say.
But first things first.
In its call for proposals
from university researchers and private firms last month, DARPA said
the immediate goal is "the controlled arrival of an insect within
five metres of a specified target located 100 metres away. It must then
remain stationary indefinitely, unless otherwise instructed ... to transmit
data to sensors providing information about the local environment."
Dragonflies and moths are
"of great interest," but "hopping and swimming insects
could also meet final demonstration goals."
Or not. Similar research
on honeybees and wasps in 2003 was, quite frankly, a wash-out.
The insects had tiny radio
transmitters glued to their backs to track their movements in the hope
their natural foraging behaviour could be harnessed to check for toxic
substances. But the bees buzzed off, to feed and mate. In agency parlance,
"their instinctive behaviours prevented them from performing reliably."
Still, researchers learned
that bees can recognize individuals. Whether they could also learn to
salute, as one skeptic put it, is unknown. The whole cyborg-insect idea
may sound hare-brained, but to Stephen Tobe, a University of Toronto
zoologist specializing in invertebrate endocrinology, it's plausible.
"If the correct microsystem
was inserted, the insect's neurons could surround it. But its entire
nervous system would have to be reprogrammed. It's difficult to conceptualize
where they'd implant it."
The question is intriguing,
says Tobe, but "whether it should be pursued, well ... I won't
even go there. It's great DARPA has lots of money to throw around for
Indeed it does: $3.1 billion
this year. That compares with the $325 million Ottawa has earmarked
for supposedly blue-sky research up here. The difference is more than
enough to make Canadian scientists "weep with envy," says
John Polanyi, the Nobel Prize-winning U of T chemist. But it's the philosophy
of the research they truly envy, he adds.
"The long-term, out-of-the-box
approach is why the U.S. is the world leader in science. Canada thinks
in the short term. It's all about wealth creation here, having business
models, setting milestones for work even before it's begun."
DARPA's staff of scientists
and engineers, drawn from universities and IT companies, work on a project
for three to five years before they're rotated into something fresh.
Their assignment is to come up with big ideas, the most impossible-seeming
referred to in-house as "hard problems" or the "unobtainiums."
The actual development work is contracted out to university labs, Harvard
among them, and private companies.
"Our job is to take
the technical excuse off the table, so people can no longer say it can't
be done," director Anthony Tether told the U.S. Congress in 2003.
The agency was created in
1958, four months after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite,
seriously denting American assumptions of military superiority. It coordinates
with the Pentagon, but from the start has been independent and self-governing.
"Failure to keep the bureaucracy at bay would have doomed the value
of DARPA, and this has been consistently recognized over the years,"
says its website.
"These guys have the
freedom to think big, run wild," says Noah Shachtman, a New York
technology analyst who runs Defensetech.org.
"They know some of their
more outlandish schemes won't ever happen — like maybe the armies
of cyber-insects — but they pick up important pieces of knowledge
in the process."
With a defence department
budget of $600 billion a year, he says, "there is room for a place
like DARPA, where the research is imaginative, far-out and sometimes
The insect work is part of
DARPA's Controlled Biological and Biomimetic Systems Program. Biomimetics
is taking an idea from nature and putting it into technology: How does
a gecko climb up walls, an octopus camouflage itself, a beetle sense
fire from 40 kilometres away? And how can those skills be adapted into
machines, or more likely, robots?
(DARPA likes robots so much
that it funds the $2 million prize for an annual robot-car race between
Los Angeles and Las Vegas to foster research.)
Back in the lab, work is
well-advanced on a biomimetic underwater robot that the agency calls
the "robolobster." It mimics the action of its organic cousin,
scurrying along the ocean floor, looking for mines and buried bombs.
Then, there's "BigDog,"
a "robotic beast of burden" that's being developed to haul
over rough terrain at least 40 kilograms of supplies that soldiers have
And not least, the Raptor
project, a "marsupial" robot aircraft that will command a
squad of roving robots. In the military scenario, Raptor would be airdropped
into enemy territory and, like a kangaroo spilling out her young, would
release a squad of small robots. They would traverse unknown terrain
using night vision lenses and laser radar and the intelligence they
pick up communicated back to the Raptor for transmission to the humans
DARPA isn't limiting itself
to mimicking nature. It's also changing it.
The department of naval research
famously pioneered the use of dolphins for military service in the Vietnam
War. DARPA plans the same for sharks.
It's working on a neural
implant to manipulate sharks' brain signals, allowing humans to control
their movements, decipher their brain activity, possibly decode their
perceptions. The "unobtainium" here is to transform the sharks
into stealth spies, capable of following vessels without being spotted,
sensing chemical trails and electromagnetic fields.
At least, that's the plan.
(DARPA doesn't comment on the status of its projects, but word is they're
still at the dogfish stage.)
Rats have already come through
with flying colours. Remote-controlled electrodes implanted in their
brains make them capable of searching through piles of rubble
The jury is still out on
the research being funded on "brain machine interface," which
would allow mechanical devices to be controlled via human thought-power.
To date, a monkey has been taught to move a computer mouse and a tele-robotic
arm simply by thinking about it.
It's a start. It may be the
finish. But at an agency where the mantra is "high risk, high pay-off,"
a high failure rate is hardly a surprise. Some 85 to 90 per cent of
projects don't accomplish their planned goals.
"When we fail, we fail
big," wrote Charles Herzfeld, director in the mid-1960s, in summing
up research disasters in an official 1975 history. "You could do
really any damn thing you wanted, as long as it wasn't against the law
On the one hand, that led
to the Internet. On the other, to several fiascos, including the now-infamous
mechanical elephant, part of the decade-long Project Agile during the
The idea was for the early-robot
Babar to penetrate through the Vietnam jungle when jeeps couldn't. But
when the then-director found out about the work, he shut it down, calling
it a "damn fool" idea that would destroy the agency's credibility
if word got out.
Hearing in the 1970s that
the Soviets were beavering away on telepathy and psychokinesis (moving
objects by mental force), DARPA swiftly followed suit, searching for
the magical someone who could psychically spy around the globe without
It was a bust. Several million
dollars later, the agency concluded that, if parapsychology even existed,
it couldn't be tapped into on demand.
More recent debacles —
but from a public-relations, if not research, standpoint — have
occurred in the spate of anti-terrorism projects ignited by the 9/11
attacks. In 2002, DARPA-funded biologists built an infectious polio
virus from its chemical components. The virus wasn't created as a weapon,
but it prompted fears that it, or even more hazardous viruses, could
Its "Total Information
Awareness" project, a data-mining technology aimed at detecting
suspected terrorists through credit card and computer use, sparked furious
outrage from privacy and civil rights advocates. "It was cancelled,"
says Noah Shachtman, "but sections of it are probably still going
on in surveillance circles."
He says a giant surveillance
blimp that would float 28,000 metres in the sky and look down on a city
is still in development. "Some of the stuff can be Orwellian, but
the agency really is interested in dual-use technology that benefits
the military and the public, like the Internet."
And so it continues. Insects,
rats, even geckos sacrificing themselves for the cause of unfettered,
visionary research. Plants too: Their ability to bend and wave in a
breeze is being studied for adaptation into aircraft.
Incredibly, however, DARPA
has been knocked lately for being too practical. "Some people think
they're not blue-sky enough," says Shachtman.
He pauses, and adds: "I
© 2006 Toronto Star