In 2006 the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) asked America’s scientists to submit “innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs.” The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program, also known as the cybug program, was a proposal from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to encourage the development of cyborg insects that can be controlled by humans. These insects, called cybugs, could be used for advanced reconnaissance. DARPA’s goal was to create a cybug that could be maneuvered to within five feet of a target and transmit back information about its environment.
The goal of HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical System), was raising real insects filled with electronic circuitry, which could be guided using GPS technology to specific targets via electrical impulses sent to their muscles.
The pamphlet outlined one specific application for the robo-bugs –outfitted with chemical sensors, they could be used to detect traces of explosives in remote buildings or caves – and it’s easy to imagine other possible tasks for such cyborgs. Insect drones kitted out with video cameras could reveal whether a building is occupied and whether those inside are civilians or enemy combatants, while those with microphones could record sensitive conversations, becoming bugs that literally bugged you.
The vision of HI-MEMS – insect swarms with various sorts of different embedded MEMS sensors (like video cameras, audio microphones and chemical sniffers) could penetrate enemy territory in swarms. The HI-MEMS swarms could then perform reconnaissance missions beyond the capabilities of bulky human soldiers.
HI-MEMS is a DARPA program initiated by Program Manager Dr. Amit Lal. 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. At least in theory, when the larva goes through metamorphosis and reorganizes its nervous system, it will integrate itself with the circuit in such a way that humans can transmit signals to the chip and control the insect’s behavior. 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.
HI-MEMS isn’t DARPA’s first foray into cyborg development. The Agency announced their cyborg shark project at the 2006 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. An earlier cybug project involving wasps failed when the insects flew off to feed and mate.
HI MEMS programs
The final milestone at the end of phase three of the HI-MEMS project is flying a cyborg insect to within five meters of a specific target starting at a distance of one hundred meters. Researchers may use remote control or automated systems using global positioning system (GPS). If a research team passes this test successfully, then DARPA can begin breeding in earnest.
DARPA is operating four distinctive research organizations at various universities throughout the continental United States. The stated objectives relevant to the experimentation currently being conducted by each of the four appendages in the field of development/ deployment are listed accordingly:
Phase I – The capture and containment of insects from various geographical regions throughout the globe.
Phase II – The eventual fusion/ integration of micromechanical technologies at the genetic level of various species of arthropods.
Phase III – The scientific demonstration and eventual deployment of remote controlled, “tethered” insects in a controlled setting whereby strategic positioning can be achieved in various combat simulations (proximal distances relative to intended targets are measured in meters with HI-MEMS being directed at 100 meter intervals).
Phase IV- The eventual breeding and cultivation of insect battalions.
In its proposal, Darpa specifically requests innovative approaches and excludes any research building on current “state of the art.” Here are the Agency’s stated requirements for researchers:
Michel Maharbiz, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley came to believe that beetles were a better bet compared to flies or moths. Compared with flies and moths, beetles are sturdy animals, encased in hard shells, and many species are large enough to carry significant cargo. The downside: scientists didn’t know much about the specific nerve pathways and brain circuits involved in beetle flight.
Beetles packing cybernetic implants that control their brains make a cheaper and more useful micro-air-vehicle than a fully robotic one — but due to the weight of the battery packs required, development has been slow. Now a DARPA-funded team at the University of Michigan thinks it’s eliminated that problem. By attaching piezoelectric generators to each wing, the researchers can harvest the energy generated in flight and use it to juice the mind-control circuits. At present, the system generates about half the energy the team thinks it can produce, as innovations in ceramic production of the miniature devices should solve that.
The HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) program instituted by DARPA is beginning to bear fruit. The University of Michigan team has successfully created a cyborg unicorn beetle microsystem.
The research was showcased at MEMS 2008, an international academic conference on MEMS that took place from January 13-17 in Tucson, AZ. The embedded probe has four electrodes. One is implanted in the control region of the brain, with two others being placed in the right and left muscles that move the wings. The cyborg beetle is able to take off and land, turn left or right and demonstrate a number of other flight control behaviors.
Electrical stimulation of wing muscles on either side initiates a turn. Beetles mounted on a long string (10 cm) were programmed with a continuous sequence of left, pause, right, pause instructions; each instruction lasted two seconds. (a) left flight muscle stimulation generates a right turn, followed by (b) a pause during which the beetle zigs and zags, followed by (c) right muscle stimulation which generates a left turn. Each photograph consists of ten frames; frames were taken every 0.2 seconds.