Page 1 of 2 The Pentagon's battle bugs
By Nick Turse
Biological weapons delivered by cyborg insects. It sounds like a nightmare
scenario straight out of the wilder realms of science fiction, but it could be
a reality if a current Pentagon project comes to fruition.
Right now, researchers are already growing insects with electronics inside
them. They're creating cyborg moths and flying beetles that can be remotely
controlled. One day, the US military may field squadrons of winged
insect/machine hybrids with on-board audio, video or chemical sensors. These
cyborg insects could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on
distant battlefields, in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer
to home, and transmit detailed data back to their handlers at US military
Today, many people fear US government surveillance of email and cell phone
communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase
the paranoia. Imagine a world in which any insect fluttering past your window
may be a remote-controlled spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more
frightening is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the
possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project,
that these cyborg insects might be armed with "bio weapons".
For the past 50 years, work by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA) - the Pentagon's blue skies research outfit - has led to some of the
most lethal weaponry in the US arsenal: from Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator
drones and stealth fighters and bombers to Tomahawk cruise missiles and Javelin
portable "fire and forget" guided missiles.
For the past several years, DARPA has funneled significant sums of money into a
very different kind of guided missile project, its Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS)
program. This project is, according to DARPA, "aimed at developing tightly
coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems [MEMS]
inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis". Put simply, the
creation of cyborg insects: part bug, part bot.
Bugs, bots, borgs and bio-weapons
This past August, at DARPA's annual symposium - DARPATech - HI-MEMS program
manager Amit Lal, an associate professor on leave from Cornell University,
explained that his project aims to transform "insects into unmanned
air-vehicles". He described the research this way: "[T]he HI-MEMS program seeks
to grow MEMS and electronics inside the insect pupae. The new tissue forms
around the insertions, making the bio-electronic interface long-lasting and
reliable." In other words, micro-electronics are inserted at the pupal stage of
metamorphosis so that they can be integrated into the insects' bodies as they
develop, creating living robots that can be remotely controlled after the
insect emerges from its cocoon.
According to the latest reports, work on this project is progressing at a rapid
pace. In a recent phone interview, DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker said, "We're
focused on determining what the best kinds of MEMS systems are; what the best
MEMS system would be for embedding; what the best time is for embedding."
This month, Rob Coppinger, writing for the aerospace trade publication Flight
International, reported on new advances announced at the "1st US-Asian
Assessment and Demonstration of Micro-Aerial and Unmanned Ground Vehicle
Technology" - a Pentagon-sponsored conference. "In the latest work," he noted,
"a Manduca moth had its thorax truncated to reduce its mass and had a MEMS
component added where abdominal segments would have been, during the larval
stage." But, as he pointed out, Robert Michelson, a principal research
engineer, emeritus at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, laid out "on behalf
of DARPA" some of the obstacles that remain. Among them were short insect
life-spans and the current inability to create these cyborgs outside
DARPA's professed long-term goal for the HI-MEMS program is the creation of
"insect cyborgs" capable of carrying "one or more sensors, such as a microphone
or a gas sensor, to relay back information gathered from the target
destination" - in other words, the creation of military micro-surveillance
In a recent email interview, Michelson - who has previously worked on numerous
military projects, including DARPA's "effort to develop an "Entomopter"
(mechanical insect-like multimode aerial robot)" - described the types of
sensor packages envisioned, but only in a minimalist fashion, as a "[w]ide
array of active and passive devices". However in "Insect Cyborgs: A New
Frontier in Flight Control Systems," a 2007 article in the academic journal
Proceedings of SPIE, Cornell researchers noted that cyborg insects could be
used as "autonomous surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles" with on-board
"[s]ensory systems such as video and chemical".
Surveillance applications, however, may only be the beginning. Last year,
Jonathan Richards, reporting for The Times, raised the specter of the
weaponization of cyborg insects in the not-too-distant future. As he pointed
out, Rodney Brooks, the director of the computer science and artificial
intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, indicated that the
Pentagon is striving toward a major expansion in the use of non-traditional air
power - such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyborg insects - in the years
ahead. "There's no doubt their things will become weaponized," he explained,
"so the question [is]: should they [be] given targeting authority?" Brooks went
on to assert, according to The Times, that it might be time to consider
rewriting international law to take the future weaponization of such "devices"
But how would one weaponize a cyborg insect? On this subject, Robert Michelson
was blunt: "Bio weapons."
Michelson wouldn't elaborate further, but any program using bio-weapons would
immediately raise major legal and ethical questions. The 1972 Biological and
Toxin Weapons Convention outlawed the manufacture and possession of
bio-weapons, of "[m]icrobial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever
their origin ... that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or
other peaceful purposes" and of "[w]eapons, equipment or means of delivery
designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed
In fact, not only did President George W Bush claim that Iraq's supposed
production and possession of biological weapons was a justification for an
invasion of that nation, but he had previously stated, "All civilized nations
reject as intolerable the use of disease and biological weapons as instruments
of war and terror."
Reached for comment, however, DARPA's Jan Walker insisted that her agency's
focus was only on "fundamental research" when it came to cyborg insects.
Although the focus of her agency is, in fact, distinctly on the future - the
technology of tomorrow - she refused to look down the road when it came to
weaponizing insect cyborgs or arming them with bio-weapons. "I can't speculate
on the future," was all she would say.
Michelson is perfectly willing to look into future, especially on matters of
cyborg insect surveillance, but on the horizon for him are technical issues
when it comes to the military use of bug bots. "Surveillance goes on anyway by
other means," he explained, "so a new method is not the issue. If there are
ethical or legal issues, they are ones of 'surveillance', not of the
Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a
digital rights and civil liberties group, sees that same future in a different
light. Cyborg insects, he says, are an order of magnitude away from today's
more standard surveillance technologies like closed circuit television.
"CCTV is mostly deployed in public and in privately owned public spaces. An
insect could easily fly into your garden or sit outside your bedroom window,"
he explained. "To make matters worse, you'd have no idea these devices were
there. A CCTV camera is usually an easily recognizable device. Robotic
surveillance insects might be harder to spot. And having to spot them wouldn't
necessarily be good for our mental health."
Does Michelson see any ethical or legal dilemmas resulting from the future use
of weaponized cyborg insects? "No, not unless