Scientists Design Sensor-Embedded Insects

June 2007
By Clarence A. Robinson Jr.

A team of engineers, physicists and biologists is seeking to create insect cyborgs—creatures with a mixture of organic and mechanical parts that could be used for military applications. The realization of cyborgs with embedded machine components would provide stealthy robots that use their own muscle actuators, which have been developed over millions of years of evolution.

This effort is not the purview of science fiction. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hybrid insect microelectromechanical systems (HI-MEMS) program is designed to develop tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces. Scientists would place microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) inside insects during early stages of their metamorphosis to help control insect locomotion. Because the majority of tissue development in insects occurs in later stages of metamorphosis, the tissue growth around the MEMS would tend to heal to form a reliable and stable tissue-machine interface.

Scientists want to integrate microsystems inside an insect so that they can control the creature to guide it within 5 meters of a specific target located hundreds of meters away. The guidance system would use electronic remote control, optical, ultrasonic signals or the global positioning system.

When it is delivered to a specific location, the insect would remain stationary either indefinitely or until otherwise instructed. The bionic bug would be able to transmit data from relevant sensors providing information about the local environment. These devices could include gas, microphone or video sensors, as examples.

The intimate integration of microsystems within insects could enable various payloads to be mounted on the platforms to control the insects. DARPA researchers are investigating several ways of controlling insect locomotion. These include direct muscle excitation, electrical stimulation of neurons, projection of ultrasonic pulses simulating bats, projections of pheromones, electromechanical stimulation of insect sensory cells and the presentation of optical cues.

Although flying insects such as butterflies, moths and dragonflies are of a great interest to DARPA researchers, so are hopping and swimming insects, which also could be used to meet final demonstration goals.

While cyborg sensors open a new multidisciplinary approach, DARPA scientists also have been exploring other complementary approaches to take advantage of insect characteristics. Researchers recently have used olfactory training of bees to locate mines and weapons of mass destruction. Using insect biology while developing foundations for this new field of insect cyborg engineering enables HI-MEMS to serve as a vehicle for conducting research to answer basic questions in biology and the integration of that discipline with others.