DARPA Building Insect Cyborgs
April 20th, 2008
Animal world has provided mankind with locomotion over millennia. For example we have 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.
The HI-MEMS program is aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis. These early stages include the caterpillar and the pupae stages. Since a majority of the tissue development in insects occurs in the later stages of metamorphosis, the renewed tissue growth around the MEMS will tend to heal, and form a reliable and stable tissue-machine interface. The goal of the MEMS, inside the insects, will be to control the locomotion by obtaining motion trajectories either from GPS coordinates, or using RF, optical, ultrasonic signals based remote control. The control of locomotion will be investigated using several approaches. These include direct electrical muscle excitation, electrical stimulation of neurons, projection of ultrasonic pulses simulating bats, projection of pheromones, electromechanical stimulation of insect sensory cells, and presentation of optical cues with micro-optical visual presentation. 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.
HI-MEMS derived technologies will enable many robotic capabilities at low cost, impacting the development of future autonomous defense systems. The realization of cyborgs with most of the machine component inside the insect body will provide stealthy robots that use muscle actuators which have been developed over millions of years of evolution. The basic technology developed in this program could also be used as a biological tool to understand and control insect development opening vistas in our understanding of tissue development, and provide new technological pathways to harness the natural sensors and power generation from insects.