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Insect Cyborgs

Do you suppose that moth is spying on Sir David Attenborough?

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

It's an old idea to train animals for use in war. We've trained bees as bomb-sniffers and used dolphins to patrol our ports [source: Vergano]. The weaponized insects of "Aeon Flux" may be a ways off, but making animals into machines is already a reality. Working under the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researchers have made real moths and beetles into remote-controlled robo-bugs. In the future, the insects may carry cameras or chemical sensors into the field.

The engineering starts when the bugs are larvae. At this time, you can implant wires into the bugs, and their bodies grow healthily around them. Their nerves, muscles and brains intertwine electrically with the implants [source: Bozkurt].

That intermingling helps in bug control because moths and beetles operate on reflexes [source: Bozkurt]. Because entomologists know which patterns to send to which nerves to trigger a behavior, they can use electrodes to hijack the bugs. For example, stimulating the neck muscles makes it circle left or right. By implanting a tiny radio receiver on the moth's back, researchers can control it wirelessly from a joystick [source: Bozkurt].

In mechanizing moths, researchers encountered the hilarities you'd expect. Tobacco moths, the kind used in the experiments, must shiver for five minutes to warm their flight muscles before they fly. Not wanting to wait, researchers implanted heaters to warm the muscles [source: Bozkurt]. And when carrying so much metal, the moths can't fly their normal range of kilometers without getting exhausted. Not to worry. The researchers hung the moths from helium balloons [source: Bozkurt]. For obvious reasons, balloons wouldn't work for spying missions. You can watch a video of the moths here.

For more superpower or sci-fi articles you might like, keep reading.

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