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July 20, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Insect Cyborgs


In the intersection of ‘military’ and ‘insects’ in the Venn diagram of your mind, you might have images like the seething mass of dehumanised enemy troops in Starship Troopers, or of StarCraft’s Zerg (you geek). You might not, however, have tiny robotic spies filed away in this scary-but-cool category. If not, then you’d better make some room, because the US Pentagon has funded the creation of insect cyborgs. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, that is as cool as it sounds.

Animals have a long history of service in the military. For hundreds of years, horses, camels, mules, oxen, and even elephants have been used to transport troops and equipment between and during battle; pigeons have been used for communications in war-time as well as during peace. Dogs were used in World War I to sniff out wounded soldiers, and more recently the US Navy has recruited dolphins and other sea mammals for mine-clearance and object-recovery duties.

More strangely (and cruelly), animals have been used as living bombs in twentieth century wars. In World War II, Allied forces experimented with attaching bombs to cats and dropping them from dive-bombers onto Nazi ships. The cats were expected to increase the proportion of bombs reaching their targets—they were supposed to ‘wrangle’ themselves onto the ships due to their aversion to water. In actuality, the cats lost consciousness before they even hit the water. A similar idea was proposed using bats, to which bombs were to be attached before being released in Japanese cities. The bat bomb idea was tested but never implemented: atomic bombs were tested and found to be rather more devastating.

The history of robots in warfare is more recent. The earliest examples of military robots are the Teletank, a remotely controlled unmanned tank used by the Soviet Union in World War II; and the Goliath tracked mine, a remote controlled miniature tank-like machine used by the Germans in the same war to destroy tanks, bridges and buildings. More recently, the Foster-Miller TALON is used by the US military in Afghanistan to remotely disarm and dispose of bombs. In military and non-military research, robots are often built to mimic animals, especially in terms of their locomotion. Search and rescue robots developed at Carnegie Mellon University move like snakes; BigDog quadruped military robots, built to transport equipment in terrain unsuitable for traditional vehicles, look and move like big dogs.

Out of the robot-animal mash-up comes cyborg animals: why try to mimic the work biology has done for millennia when you can simply commandeer biology’s creations?

The first cyborg animals were created by José Delago at Yale University in the 1950s, by implanting electrodes into the brains of animals to control their movement. In a dramatic demonstration of his work (after which I’m sure a shadowy allegiance of supervillains must have approached him to offer him an evil scientist position), Delago stood before a charging bull, remotely activating the bull’s implant moments before impact, causing the bull to halt mere metres before Delago’s impalement on the bull’s horns. In similar experiments since, scientists have implanted electrodes in the brains of animals like rats, pigeons, and snakes, and affixed miniature recording equipment upon them.

In the recent Pentagon quest for tiny winged soldiers, researchers implanted electrodes into the flight muscles of tobacco hawkmoths, which could then be used to fly and steer the moths by stimulating their muscles. Another group of Pentagon-funded researchers implanted electrodes into the brains of June beetles to control their movement.

Both systems are a long way from being discrete and stealthy—both involve bits of wire and/or tiny batteries protruding from the insects. The Pentagon is continuing to fund research into these insect cyborgs, so if you like the idea, maybe you could find someone you could talk into supervising your insect cyborg thesis. The hawk moth team is based in the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, while the June bug team works out of the University of California at Berkeley.

In similar research funded by the Pentagon, researchers are vying to create canary-in-the-mine early warning systems using bugs like crickets and cicadas. Crickets, cicadas, and other similar insects communicate using wing beats. The aim of the Pentagon research is to commandeer the insects’ communication networks by implanting electronics in the bugs to change their wing beats in the presence of particular chemicals. The insect army could then be used to detect the presence of chemical weapons, gas leaks or smoke, or even chemical markers of human beings for use in search and rescue operations.

Unless North Korea’s military and scientific research really is as awesome as it claims, that moth head-butting your light-bulb is probably just a moth, and not a little insect spy (and North Korea is probably not really interested in you anyway). But if your future goals include building cyborg armies, science is bringing your goal ever closer. And if you’re of the paranoid-conspiracy-theory bent, remember to make your bunker impervious to tiny insect spies…

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