Uncle Sam's Insect Army

Uncle Sam's scientists busy building insect army.
No, it's not an April Fool's joke: Defence research agency creates landmine-sniffing bugs.
LYNDA HURST - Apr. 1, 2006. 08:32 AM.

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 aircraft.

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 organs.

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 blue-sky thinking."

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 creepy."

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 to carry.

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 at base.

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 or immoral."

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 Vietnam War.

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 leaving home.

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 be.

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 don't agree."