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Man and beast have been collaborating for centuries to achieve military and crime-fighting objectives. Today, dogs are hard at work sniffing out IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dolphins and sea lions are used to clear mines. Even guinea pigs, moles and flies can be marshaled into service, if Jerry Bruckheimer's latest venture, G-Force, is to be believed. Researchers in the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems program certainly do, and are currently developing robot/insect hybrids, or "cybugs" to use as tiny Predator drones.
This creepy-crawly convergence comes courtesy of the fine folks at DARPA, who've already given us night vision goggles, the F-117 Stealth Fighter and the Internet. The HI-MEMS program, according to project manager Dr. Amit Lal, aims "to develop technology that provides more control over insect locomotion, just as saddles and horseshoes are needed for horse locomotion control." Let's hope the results are better than Get Smart's digital spy fly, or taxpayers will have much to complain about.
Rather than constructing teensy flying androids from the ground up, the scientists at HI-MEMS have elected to outfit young bugs with embedded microsystems and wait for the larvae to metamorphose into wee weapons. Then the cybugs' movements can be remotely controlled using a variety of methods -- electrical stimulation of their sensory cells, for instance -- and they'll be sent off to flit about carrying microphones or gas sensors or what have you, all the while reporting back to their human overlords. No word yet as to whether such stimulation could cause all household appliances to converge into a giant walking villain as in G-Force, but it would probably take some mad guinea pig to pull off a feat of that magnitude, anyway.
Researchers at Cornell have already successfully manipulated the flight of moths by inserting tiny circuit boards -- just 8x7 millimeters -- into the creatures during their pupa stage. The mature moths are then zapped by a miniscule battery that moves the muscles they use to fly. More recent efforts seek to harness the insects' own body heat in order to produce the necessary electricity. And before you go worrying about enslaving a species for energy à la The Matrix, remember: It's either that or a bug zapper for our flying friends.
One day these miniature warriors might be deployed on missions for Homeland Security, gathering intelligence with miniature cameras or detecting land mines, as honeybees were trained to do in 2005. Or, we may need them to do battle with alien armies of metallic pests, if The Day the Earth Stood Still's GORT ever arrives to unleash his swarm.
But for now, all we've got is the G-Force's own spy fly, a high tech surveillance expert named Mooch who sounds like a soprano Scooby Doo. As flies tend to do, Mooch often gets himself into deep doo doo -- he's vulnerable to predatory chameleons, and he's always in danger of being squished. So please, if you feel something crawling on you, check it for hardware before slapping it away. It just might be an itty-bitty soldier, protecting our nation from harm.