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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Moths become stealth spies

Insects implanted with advanced electronics would be used to infiltrate enemy camps and beam back live video footage under a program being developed by the American military.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) believes moths are ideal candidates to become the first insect cyborgs - creatures which contain a blend of organic and computer parts.

It hopes to gain control of the insects by inserting electronics into their nervous system while they are still at the pupa stage and then steer them to appropriate targets.

Energy for the electronics would be powered by the movement of the moth's body.

While a top Australian scientist working in America has recently claimed the plans are feasible in the not-too-distant future, local researchers last week were more cautious about the concept.

``It's pretty far out there stuff,'' said Dr Michael Milford, a robotics expert with the brain institute at the University of Queensland.

``I think they will meet some of their goals.

``But I think they will run into some practical challenges.''

DARPA outlined its plans for insect cyborgs in a statement.

``The [program] is aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis,'' said scientist Dr Amit Lal.

``Since a majority of the tissue development in insects occurs in the later stages of metamorphosis, the renewed tissue growth around the [cyborgs] will tend to heal, and form a reliable and stable tissue-machine interface.''

London's The Times newspaper reported Rod Brooks, the Australian-born director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was involved in the research.

``This is going to happen,'' Brooks said in a speech at the University of Southampton in England.

``It's not science like developing the nuclear bomb, which costs billions of dollars.

``It can be done relatively cheaply.''

DARPA is looking at a range of options for controlling the insects including light and sound signals.

Steering the cyborgs could be done by remotely stimulating their muscles, by triggering certain parts of their nervous system or by distributing pheremones.

A range of sensors could ultimately be carried including sound recording equipment and gas sensors.

``The realization of cyborgs with most of the machine component inside the insect body will provide stealthy robots that use muscle actuators which have been developed over millions of years of evolution,'' Lal said.

The plans for insect cyborgs follow breakthroughs in controlling rats, sharks and other animals by placing implants in their brains.

Milford said there was no doubt there would be major advances down the track in combining robotics with the bodies of humans and other animals.

However, he saw creating insect cyborgs as a major challenge due to the small size of the creatures.

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