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Wasps of War

by ISN Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009 at 12:03 AM

What can hover, dash and fly in almost any direction while transmitting sensitive electronic information on its whereabouts and surroundings? Here is a hint: Probability is high that this latest hi-tech gadget will become integral to US national security in the near future.

15 Oct 2009

The latest technological gadgets being developed by the Pentagon may have interesting implications for national security, and the future of warfare is certainly abuzz, Jody Ray Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN Security Watch

One might incorrectly answer that this new gadget is the infamous military drone, the Predator or Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that were at one time loaded with missiles and bombs by Blackwater and then used by the US military to target and kill suspected terrorists and other insurgents from within Pakistan.

However, the answer, and the latest development funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is a flying 'cyborg beetle,' an actual insect that has been surgically altered so that a human can control its flight direction and movement.

The research and development on these cyborg insects are being developed by universities and businesses across the US, but is part of a larger DARPA project titled the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) Program. While the project has been running for three years, much of the time was dedicated to learning how to attach neural transmitters to the brains and muscles of various insects in order to control their otherwise natural movements with electronic and radio controls. Only recently have videos surfaced that reveal various insects taking flight with implanted electronics, effectively creating the world’s first bionic life forms. So far, these have included bees and wasps, butterflies and moths and horned beetles.

“The program is sponsoring fundamental research attempting to embed microelectromechanical systems into insects during the pupa stage and then demonstrate that the embedded microelectromechanical systems can be used to control insect flight in a predictable manner,” Johanna Jones, a spokeswoman for DARPA, told ISN Security Watch.

“In Phase One [of the HI-MEMS Program], researchers proved successful in embedding MEMS into developing insects, and living, adult-stage insects emerged with the embedded systems intact. To date, researchers have demonstrated that the embedded systems can be used to initiate and control the insect during untethered flight,” Jones said.

According to Jones, million has been invested into program research to date and DARPA continues to offer funding to those parties who can prove they can advance the development of hybrid insect technologies.

Due to the classified nature of the projects, Jones explained to ISN Security Watch that she was unable to comment on questions referring to the role of HI-MEMS in national security or military affairs.

Insect armies

While the HI-MEMS Program is highly classified, DARPA makes no secret that this technology is being developed with defensive, offensive and national security strategies in mind. Upon visiting the HI-MEMS website, visitors are immediately met with a historical argument used to justify the fusion of biological life and electronics:

“Mankind has used horses and elephants for locomotion in wars and conducting commerce. Birds have been used for sending covert messages, and to detect gases in coal mines, a life-saving technique for coal miners. More recently, olfactory training of bees has been used to locate mines and weapons of mass destruction. The HI-MEMS program is aimed to develop technology that provides more control over insect locomotion, just as saddles and horseshoes are needed for horse locomotion control.”

These insects effectively embody remote-controlled surveillance devices that completely blend into natural surroundings. Indeed, if DARPA is fully successful with the HI-MEMS program, these bionic insects could be used for anything from the next combat technology that comes in the form of bee and wasp swarms that could sting or deliver other toxins to the next covert gadget for eavesdropping and image gathering, all of which could be controlled by military personnel behind a computer.

According to the HI-MEMS description, “The intimate control of insects with embedded microsystems will enable insect cyborgs, which could carry one or more sensors, such as a microphone or a gas sensor, to relay back information gathered from the target destination.”

Mothly malfunctions

Critics note that this is not the first time DARPA or other government agencies have attempted to fund research to develop animal-hybrid technologies. The BBC aptly recalls the little known and unsuccessful tests by the US using felines as dive bombers and bats as incendiary devices. The Soviets employed anti-tank dogs during the World Wars, while the British attempted to deploy explosive rats against the Nazis.

Indeed, it seems the ethics of fusing biological life with electronics for the purposes of military or security strategy have yet to enter this discussion whereas purely electronic robots and machines that have been designed for the same purposes have.

As with all developing technologies that enter into the sphere of warfare and security practices, questions inevitably arise concerning how such technology would change or challenge rules of engagement and other security practices. The use of hybrid insects will not only raise issues over how wars are fought and may one day be cited as yet another example of the changing nature of warfare, but also challenge developing norms over how biological life is formed and whether or not it can be harnessed or exploited by governments for strategic political or economic gains.

Nevertheless, DARPA is not in the business of answering these questions. It maintains that its interests in HI-MEMS technologies “will enable many robotic capabilities at low cost, impacting the development of future autonomous defense systems [and that] the realization of cyborgs with most of the machine components inside the insect body will provide stealthy robots that use muscle actuators which have been developed over millions of years of evolution.” Indeed, DARPA has no shortage of confidence.

For now, an unknown number of bionic beetles and butterflies, cyborg moths and hybrid larvae are alive and growing under the auspice of scientists across the US. As such, it may not be a far leap to suggest that national security, the future of warfare and the destiny of the nation-state are all being determined in a science lab right now.

Jody Ray Bennett is a freelance writer and academic researcher. His areas of analysis include the private military and security industry, the materialization of non-state forces and the transformation of modern warfare

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