Tuesday, October 9, 2007

On The Trail Of The Robobugs

Rick Weiss of the Washington Post tries to track down a pretty creepy story, using a dragonfly analogy which doesn't quite ring true (more on that later). Here's the link and an excerpt:

Dragonfly or Insect Spy? Scientists at Work on Robobugs.
Vanessa Alarcon saw them while working at an antiwar rally in Lafayette Square last month.

"I heard someone say, 'Oh my god, look at those,'" the college senior from New York recalled. "I look up and I'm like, 'What the hell is that?' They looked kind of like dragonflies or little helicopters. But I mean, those are not insects."

Out in the crowd, Bernard Crane saw them, too.

"I'd never seen anything like it in my life," the Washington lawyer said. "They were large for dragonflies. I thought, 'Is that mechanical, or is that alive?'"
They are clearly not talking about the mechanical fly you see in the photo. That sweet little unit photo is being developed at Harvard -- at the Microrobotics Lab!

But the people in this story -- Bernard Crane and Vanessa Alarcon -- are talking about something else. Like a dragonfly only bigger. What were they?
Some suspect the insectlike drones are high-tech surveillance tools, perhaps deployed by the Department of Homeland Security.

No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones. 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.
Yeah, sure! Then they could guide more missiles to the survivors!!

Weiss doesn't turn up anything definite, but he's shaking up all the right trees, and the stuff that's falling out isn't very reassuring -- or surprising!
Robotic fliers have been used by the military since World War II, but in the past decade their numbers and level of sophistication have increased enormously. Defense Department documents describe nearly 100 different models in use today, some as tiny as birds, and some the size of small planes.

But getting from bird size to bug size is not a simple matter of making everything smaller.

Only recently have scientists come to understand how insects fly -- a biomechanical feat that, despite the evidence before scientists' eyes, was for decades deemed "theoretically impossible." Just last month, researchers at Cornell University published a physics paper clarifying how dragonflies adjust the relative motions of their front and rear wings to save energy while hovering.

That kind of finding is important to roboticists because flapping fliers tend to be energy hogs, and batteries are heavy.

The CIA was among the earliest to tackle the problem. The "insectothopter," developed by the agency's Office of Research and Development 30 years ago, looked just like a dragonfly and contained a tiny gasoline engine to make the four wings flap. It flew but was ultimately declared a failure because it could not handle crosswinds.

Agency spokesman George Little said he could not talk about what the CIA may have done since then. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service also declined to discuss the topic.

[R]esearchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are inserting computer chips into moth pupae -- the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult -- and hatching them into healthy "cyborg moths."

The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project aims to create literal shutterbugs -- camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip so that wranglers can control their activities. DARPA researchers are also raising cyborg beetles with power for various instruments to be generated by their muscles.

"You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support," DARPA program manager Amit Lal said at a symposium in August. Today, he said, "this science fiction vision is within the realm of reality."

A DARPA spokeswoman denied a reporter's request to interview Lal or others on the project.
But independent researchers aren't so reticent. For example ...

Here's Robert Michelson holding a "microflyer".
A multimode (flying/crawling) insect is being developed by Robert Michelson and his design team from the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), University of Cambridge (England), and ETS Labs. The project has received initial IRAD funding from the Georgia Institute of Technology. The mechanical insect, known as an “Entomopter” is based around a new development called a Reciprocating Chemical Muscle (RCM) which is capable of generating autonomic wing beating from a chemical energy source.
Once they can get these things flying, of course, there'll be no stopping them. And there's no reason why they can't have cameras or any number of other devices embedded in them.

Here's Rick Weiss again:
So what was seen by Crane, Alarcon and a handful of others at the D.C. march -- and as far back as 2004, during the Republican National Convention in New York, when one observant but perhaps paranoid peace-march participant described on the Web "a jet-black dragonfly hovering about 10 feet off the ground, precisely in the middle of 7th avenue . . . watching us"?

They probably saw dragonflies, said Jerry Louton, an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Washington is home to some large, spectacularly adorned dragonflies that "can knock your socks off," he said.

At the same time, he added, some details do not make sense. Three people at the D.C. event independently described a row of spheres, the size of small berries, attached along the tails of the big dragonflies -- an accoutrement that Louton could not explain. And all reported seeing at least three maneuvering in unison.

"Dragonflies never fly in a pack," he said.
So they weren't dragonflies at all ... And what were the little spheres on their "tails". Is that an array of input devices?

Don't mind me; I'm just wondering!

There's more from Rick Weiss and the WaPo and it's here (mirrored here).