Last January, at a conference in Sorrento, Italy, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan shocked the crowd with a living, remote-control fruit beetle, part of a Pentagon-funded HI-MEMS (“hybrid insects microelectromechanical system”) program to develop cyborg creepy-crawlies. Recently the Berkeley team created a remote-control fig beetle that they can launch and land and direct to the left and right.
WHY, GOD, WHY?
For years, Darpa, the Pentagon’s experimental-research branch, has attempted to build true nano air vehicles, tiny aircraft that can act as miniature drones in war zones. Adapting real insects turns out to be simpler—their bodies accept implants easily, and they’re hardy, fast and nimble. They also blend in outdoors.
As sinister as they seem, the tiny cyborgs aren’t yet a threat to Al Qaeda or your privacy. Even the fruit beetle isn’t strong enough to carry much besides the electrodes and radio antennas that steer it. But researchers are working to breed stronger payload-bearing beetles and to develop components that could be powered by the insect’s movement rather than by burdensome batteries. And here’s something scary: The Berkeley scientists can now implant the MEMS equipment during the pupal stage so that the beetles emerge embedded with electrodes, ready to be wired up. Still, bugs may never join troops on the front lines. For one thing, their short life span makes all the expense of cyborging them difficult to justify.
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