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Pentagon agency that created spy bugs declines to allow scientist to talk
John Byrne
Published: Monday April 21, 2008

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Vice President Dick Cheney is so favored by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency -- DARPA -- that they invited him to blow out the candles at their 50th anniversary bash.

"This agency brought forth the Saturn 5 rocket, surveillance satellites, the Internet, stealth technology, guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles, night vision and the body armor that's in use today," Cheney claimed. "Thank heaven for DARPA."

The secretive Pentagon outfit, a research arm which develops new military technologies, refused to allow a scientist to be interviewed for an article Sunday about on a program that has received scant attention by the press: small insect cyborgs that may mark the next generation in military surveillance.

No, it's not April Fool's.

"No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones," the Washington Post's Rick Weiss wrote last October. "But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying. Some federally funded teams are even growing live insects with computer chips in them, with the goal of mounting spyware on their bodies and controlling their flight muscles remotely."

"The robobugs could follow suspects, guide missiles to targets or navigate the crannies of collapsed buildings to find survivors," he adds.

But in an article reported late Sunday by TIME's Mark Thompson, the agency has admitted creating insects with embedded computer chip systems.

"DARPA declined TIME's request to interview Dr. Lal about his program and the progress he is making in producing the bugs," Thompson wrote. "The agency added that there is no timetable for turning backyard pests into battlefield assets. But in a written statement, spokeswoman Jan Walker said that 'living, adult-stage insects have emerged with the embedded systems intact.'"

"Presumably," he mocks, "enemy arsenals will soon be well-stocked with Raid."

But he may be underplaying the case. The CIA developed simplistic "dragonfly" robots in the 1970s, Weiss notes, but scientists are skeptical that enhanced cyborg surveillance insects have been created.

Adds Thompson:

So what's hot at DARPA right now? Bugs. The creepy, crawly flying kind. The Agency's Microsystems Technology Office is hard at work on HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical System), raising real insects filled with electronic circuitry, which could be guided using GPS technology to specific targets via electrical impulses sent to their muscles. These half-bug, half-chip creations - DARPA calls them "insect cyborgs" - would be ideal for surveillance missions, the agency says in a brief description on its website. Scientist Amit Lal and his team insert mechanical components into baby bugs during "the caterpillar and the pupae stages," which would then allow the adult bugs to be deployed to do the Pentagon's bidding. "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," DARPA says. "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." Such bugs "could carry one or more sensors, such as a microphone or a gas sensor, to relay back information gathered from the target destination."

Wrote Weiss in October: "In one approach, researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are inserting computer chips into moth pupae -- the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult -- and hatching them into healthy 'cyborg moths.'"

More images of the fitted insects are here.