Moth Pupa + MEMS Chip = Remote Controlled Cyborg Insect

MEMS08_BTI01.jpg

PHOTO: Boyce Thompson Institute

Take a moth during its pupal stage. Insert electrodes and a control chip into it. Wait a few days. The result? An unmanned aerial vehicle, of course!

Turning moths (or pigeons, rats, beetles, bees, and sharks, for that matter) into remote controlled cyborg critters has long been a goal of mad scientists and DARPA program managers.

Spectrum's Sally Adee reports on the latest initiatives of DARPA's HI-MEMS, or Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project. (I guess the name says it all.)

According to Adee, researchers at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, in Ithaca, N.Y. -- one of the contractors on the HI-MEMS project -- are making progress toward their goal of growing MEMS-insect hybrids. In a paper presented at IEEE MEMS 2009, Adee writes, they describe "silicon neural interfaces for gas sensors that were inserted into insects during the pupal phase." The idea is that the moths could carry such sensors during search-and-rescue and reconnaissance missions.

MEMS08_BTI2.jpg

PHOTO: Boyce Thompson Institute

Meanwhile, at MIT -- another HI-MEMS contractor -- researchers are working on a low-power ultrawide-band radio and a new digital baseband processor for the cyborg moths. In papers presented at IEEE ISSCC, they described how the radio chip will let a remote operator steer the moth by stimulating muscles that control flight and how the baseband chip can very quickly synchronize with wireless signals to save power.

So, when the creepy cyborg critters come to life, so to speak, how does DARPA plan to gauge its capabilities? Writes Adee:

To be considered successful, the final HI-MEMS cybernetic bug must fly 100 meters from a starting point and then be steered into a controlled landing within 5 meters of a specified end point. On landing, the insect must stay in place.

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