It's a surveillance freak's dream : an Army of fly-sized robot spy cameras, that can wing their way into the midst of a peace protest, zoom through a terrorist training camp gathering visual data, or hide in the corner of a room while foreign diplomats are holding secretive meetings relaying conversations by mini-microphone.
But how close are we to a world where tiny robotic insects are swarming through our cities and towns?
Closer than you might think.
This fascinating, and disturbing, story from the Washington Post details where various military, university and private surveillance companies are at on bringing micro-robo-bugs into reality (excerpts) :
The whole story is worth a read.
No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones. But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying. Some federally funded teams are even growing live insects with computer chips in them, with the goal of mounting spyware on their bodies and controlling their flight muscles remotely.
The robobugs could follow suspects, guide missiles to targets or navigate the crannies of collapsed buildings to find survivors.
The technical challenges of creating robotic insects are daunting, and most experts doubt that fully working models exist yet.
...the CIA secretly developed a simple dragonfly snooper as long ago as the 1970s. And given recent advances, even skeptics say there is always a chance that some agency has quietly managed to make something operational.
Robotic fliers have been used by the military since World War II, but in the past decade their numbers and level of sophistication have increased enormously. Defense Department documents describe nearly 100 different models in use today, some as tiny as birds, and some the size of small planes.
All told, the nation's fleet of flying robots logged more than 160,000 flight hours last year -- a more than fourfold increase since 2003. A recent report by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College warned that if traffic rules are not clarified soon, the glut of unmanned vehicles "could render military airspace chaotic and potentially dangerous."But getting from bird size to bug size is not a simple matter of making everything smaller.
"You can't make a conventional robot of metal and ball bearings and just shrink the design down," said Ronald Fearing, a roboticist at the University of California at Berkeley. For one thing, the rules of aerodynamics change at very tiny scales and require wings that flap in precise ways -- a huge engineering challenge.In one approach, researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are inserting computer chips into moth pupae -- the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult -- and hatching them into healthy "cyborg moths."
The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project aims to create literal shutterbugs -- camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip so that wranglers can control their activities. DARPA researchers are also raising cyborg beetles with power for various instruments to be generated by their muscles.Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have made a "microbat ornithopter" that flies freely and fits in the palm of one's hand. A Vanderbilt University team has made a similar device.
With their sail-like wings, neither of those would be mistaken for insects. In July, however, a Harvard University team got a truly fly-like robot airborne, its synthetic wings buzzing at 120 beats per second.
"It showed that we can manufacture the articulated, high-speed structures that you need to re-create the complex wing motions that insects produce," said team leader Robert Wood.
The fly's vanishingly thin materials were machined with lasers, then folded into three-dimensional form "like a micro-origami," he said. Alternating electric fields make the wings flap. The whole thing weighs just 65 milligrams, or a little more than the plastic head of a push pin.
Still, it can fly only while attached to a threadlike tether that supplies power, evidence that significant hurdles remain.
In August, at the International Symposium on Flying Insects and Robots, held in Switzerland, Japanese researchers introduced radio-controlled fliers with four-inch wingspans that resemble hawk moths. Those who watch them fly, its creator wrote in the program, "feel something of 'living souls.' "
Others, taking a tip from the CIA, are making fliers that run on chemical fuels instead of batteries. The "entomopter," in early stages of development at the Georgia Institute of Technology and resembling a toy plane more than a bug, converts liquid fuel into a hot gas, which powers four flapping wings and ancillary equipment.