We at TomDispatch love anniversaries. So how could
we have forgotten DARPA's for so many months? This very year, the Pentagon's
research outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), turns
50 years old. Happy birthday, DARPA! You were born as a response to the Soviet Union's
launching of the first Earth-girdling satellite, Sputnik, which gave Americans
a mighty shock. To prevent another "technological surprise" by the Soviets –
or anybody else, any time, ever – the agency has grown into the Pentagon's good
right arm, always there to reach into the future and grab another wild idea
for weaponization. Each year, DARPA now spends
about $3 billion on a twofold mission: "to prevent technological surprise for
us and to create technological surprise for our adversaries."
Next month, the agency will celebrate
its anniversary with a conference that aims to "reflect on [its] challenges
and accomplishments … over the past 50 years and to consider the Agency's goals
for the next 50 years." What a super idea! Think of that. The next 50! If only
TomDispatch is still around – my brain well-preserved and renewed (thanks to
some nifty cutting-edge science from the TD Advanced Research Projects Lab)
– to see War 2058 arrive and blow out those 100-year anniversary candles on
In the meantime, the future is now and Pentagon expert Nick Turse is at work
– see below – on the latest developments in DARPA's plans to help an overstretched
military by reaching into the insect kingdom for its newest well weaponized
recruits. The first larval Marines, perhaps. Ten-HUT! Unlike Americans at present,
they should simply swarm to the recruiting offices.
It's a strange (not to say hair-raising) subject for a journalist who has lately
been covering the air
war in Iraq and elsewhere for TomDispatch. But the Pentagon's urge to weaponize
the wild kingdom is a topic Turse has long been familiar with and that he deals
with powerfully in his remarkable new book, The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. It is – believe
me – the single most powerful look yet at all the subtle and complicated ways
American lives have been militarized during the last decades. (For a short video
discussion I had with Turse, click here.)
Oh, and here's a suggestion for DARPA from a New Yorker. When you're recruiting
those bugs, don't forget the roaches in my kitchen. They've been idle too long.
Weaponizing the Pentagon's Cyborg Insects
A futuristic nightmare that just might come true
by Nick Turse
Biological weapons delivered by cyborg insects.
It sounds like a nightmare scenario straight out of the wilder realms of science
fiction, but it could be a reality, if a current Pentagon project comes to fruition.
Right now, researchers are already growing insects with electronics
inside them. They're creating cyborg moths and flying beetles that can be remotely
controlled. One day, the U.S. military may field squadrons of winged insect/machine
hybrids with onboard audio, video, or chemical sensors. These cyborg insects
could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields,
in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home, and transmit detailed
data back to their handlers at U.S. military bases.
Today, many people fear U.S. government surveillance of e-mail and cell phone
communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase
the paranoia. Imagine a world in which any insect fluttering past your window
may be a remote-controlled spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more
frightening is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the
possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project,
that these cyborg insects might be armed with "bio weapons."
For the past 50 years, work by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA) – the Pentagon's blue skies research outfit – has led to some of the
most lethal weaponry in the U.S. arsenal: from Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator
drones and stealth fighters and bombers to Tomahawk cruise missiles and Javelin
portable "fire and forget" guided missiles. For the last several years, DARPA
has funneled significant sums of money into a very different kind of guided
missile project, its Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS) program. This project
is, according to DARPA, "aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect
interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems [MEMS] inside the insects during
the early stages of metamorphosis." Put simply, the creation of cyborg insects:
part bug, part bot.
Bugs, Bots, Borgs and Bio-Weapons
This past August, at DARPA's annual symposium – DARPATech – HI-MEMS program
manager Amit Lal,
an associate professor on leave from Cornell University, explained that his
project aims to transform "insects into unmanned air-vehicles." He described
the research this way: "[T]he HI-MEMS program seeks to grow MEMS and electronics
inside the insect pupae. The new tissue forms around the insertions, making
the bio-electronic interface long-lasting and reliable." In other words, micro-electronics
are inserted at the pupal stage of metamorphosis so that they can be integrated
into the insects' bodies as they develop, creating living robots that can
be remotely controlled after the insect emerges from its cocoon.
According to the latest reports, work on this project is progressing at a
rapid pace. In a recent phone interview, DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker said,
"We're focused on determining what the best kinds of MEMS systems are; what
the best MEMS system would be for embedding; what the best time is for embedding."
This month, Rob Coppinger, writing for the aerospace trade publication Flight
International, reported on new advances announced at the "1st U.S.-Asian
Assessment and Demonstration of Micro-Aerial and Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technology"
– a Pentagon-sponsored conference. "In the latest work," he noted, "a Manduca
moth had its thorax truncated to reduce its mass and had a MEMS component added
where abdominal segments would have been, during the larval stage." But, as
he pointed out, Robert Michelson, a principal research engineer, emeritus
at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, laid out "on behalf of DARPA" some of
the obstacles that remain. Among them were short insect life-spans and the current
inability to create these cyborgs outside specialized labs.
DARPA's professed long-term goal for the HI-MEMS program is the creation
of "insect cyborgs" capable of carrying "one or more sensors, such as a microphone
or a gas sensor, to relay back information gathered from the target destination"
– in other words, the creation of military micro-surveillance systems.
In a recent e-mail interview, Michelson – who has previously worked on numerous
military projects, including DARPA's "effort to develop an 'Entomopter' (mechanical
insect-like multimode aerial robot)" – described the types of sensor packages
envisioned, but only in a minimalist fashion, as a "[w]ide array of active
and passive devices." However in "Insect Cyborgs: A New Frontier in Flight
Control Systems," a 2007 article in the academic journal Proceedings of
SPIE, Cornell researchers noted that cyborg insects could be used as "autonomous
surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles" with onboard"[s]ensory systems such
as video and chemical."
Surveillance applications, however, may only be the beginning. Last year,
Jonathan Richards, reporting for The Times, raised
the specter of the weaponization of cyborg insects in the not-too-distant
future. As he pointed out, Rodney Brooks, the director of the computer science
and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
indicated that the Pentagon is striving toward a major expansion in the use
of non-traditional air power – like unmanned aerial vehicles and cyborg
insects – in the years ahead. "There's no doubt their things will become weaponized,"
he explained, "so the question [is]: should they [be] given targeting authority?"
Brooks went on to assert, according to The Times, that it might be
time to consider rewriting international law to take the future weaponization
of such "devices" into account.
But how would one weaponize a cyborg insect? On this subject, Robert Michelson
was blunt: "Bio weapons."
Michelson wouldn't elaborate further, but any program using bio-weapons would
immediately raise major legal and ethical questions. The 1972 Biological and
Toxin Weapons Convention outlawed the manufacture
and possession of bio-weapons, of "[m]icrobial or other biological agents, or
toxins whatever their origin … that have no justification for prophylactic,
protective, or other peaceful purposes" and of "[w]eapons, equipment, or means
of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in
armed conflict." In fact, not only did President George W. Bush claim that Iraq's
production and possession of biological weapons was a justification for
an invasion of that nation, but he had previously stated,
"All civilized nations reject as intolerable the use of disease and biological
weapons as instruments of war and terror."
Reached for comment, however, DARPA's Jan Walker insisted that her agency's
focus was only on "fundamental research" when it came to cyborg insects. Although
the focus of her agency is, in fact, distinctly on the future – the technology
of tomorrow – she refused to look down the road when it came to weaponizing
insect cyborgs or arming them with bio-weapons. "I can't speculate on the
future," was all she would say.
Michelson is perfectly willing to look into future, especially on matters
of cyborg insect surveillance, but on the horizon for him are technical issues
when it comes to the military use of bug bots. "Surveillance goes on anyway
by other means," he explained, "so a new method is not the issue. If there
are ethical or legal issues, they are ones of 'surveillance,' not of the 'surveillance
Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
a digital rights and civil liberties group, sees that same future in a different
light. Cyborg insects, he says, are an order of magnitude away from today's
more standard surveillance technologies like closed-circuit television. "CCTV
is mostly deployed in public and in privately owned public spaces. An insect
could easily fly into your garden or sit outside your bedroom window," he explained.
"To make matters worse, you'd have no idea these devices were there. A CCTV
camera is usually an easily recognizable device. Robotic surveillance insects
might be harder to spot. And having to spot them wouldn't necessarily be good
for our mental health."
Does Michelson see any ethical or legal dilemmas resulting from the future
use of weaponized cyborg insects? "No, not unless they could breed new cyborg
insects, which is not possible," he explained. "Genetic engineering will be
the ethical and legal battleground, not cybernetics."
Battle Beetles and Hawkish Hawkmoths
Weaponized or not, moths are hardly the only cyborg insects that may fly, creep,
or crawl into the military's future arsenal. Scientists
from Arizona State University and elsewhere, working under a grant from
the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, "are rearing beetle species at various
oxygen levels to attempt to produce beetles with greater-than-normal size and
payload capacity." Earlier this year, some of the same scientists published
on their DARPA-funded research titled "A Cyborg Beetle: Insect Flight Control
Through an Implantable, Tetherless Microsystem." They explained that, by implanting
"multiple inserted neural and muscular stimulators, a visual stimulator, a polyimide
assembly, and a microcontroller" in a 2 centimeter long, 1-2 gram green June
beetle, they were "capable of modulating [the insect's] flight starts, stops,
throttle/lift, and turning." They could, that is, drive an actual beetle.
However, unlike the June bug you might find on a porch screen or in a garden,
these sported onboard electronics powered by cochlear implant batteries.
DARPA-funded HI-MEMS research has also been undertaken at other institutions
across the country and around the world. For example, in 2006, researchers at
Cornell, in conjunction with scientists at Pennsylvania State University and
the Universidad de Valparaiso, Chile, received an $8.4 million DARPA grant for
work on "Insect Cyborg Sentinels." According to a recent article in New
Scientist, a team led by one of the primary investigators on that grant,
David Stern, screened a series of video clips at a recent conference in Tucson,
Ariz., demonstrating their ability to control tethered tobacco hawkmoths through
"flexible plastic probes" implanted during the pupae stage. Simply stated, the
researchers were able to remotely control the moths-on-a-leash, manipulating
the cyborg creatures' wing speed and direction.
Cyborg insects are only the latest additions to the U.S. military's menagerie.
As defense tech-expert Noah Shachtman of Wired magazine's Danger Room
blog has reported,
DARPA projects have equipped rats with electronic equipment and remotely controlled
sharks, while the military has utilized all sorts of animals, from bomb-detecting
honeybees and "chickens used as early-warning sensors for chemical attacks"
to guard dogs and dolphins trained to hunt mines. Additionally, he notes,
the DoD's emphasis on the natural world has led to robots that resemble dogs,
monkeys that control robotic limbs with their minds, and numerous other projects
inspired by nature.
But whatever other creatures they favor, insects never seem far from the Pentagon's
dreams of the future. In fact, Shachtman reported
earlier this year that "Air Force scientists are looking for robotic bombs that
look – and act – like swarms of bugs and birds." He went on to quote Col. Kirk
Kloeppel, head of the Air Force Research Laboratory's munitions directorate,
who announced the Lab's interest in "bio-inspired munitions," in "small, autonomous"
machines that would "provide close-in [surveillance] information, in addition
to killing intended targets."
This month, researcher Robert Wood wrote
in IEEE Spectrum about what he believes was "the first flight of an insect-size
robot." After almost a decade of research, Wood and his colleagues at the Harvard
Microrobotics Laboratory are now creating small insect-like robots that will
eventually be outfitted "with onboard sensors, flight controls, and batteries
… to nimbly flit around obstacles and into places beyond human reach." Like
cyborg insect researchers, Wood is DARPA-funded. Last year, in fact, the agency
selected him as one of 24 "rising stars" for a "young faculty awards" grant.
Asked about the relative advantages of cyborg insects compared to mechanical
bugs, Robert Michelson noted that "robotic insects obey without innate
or external influences" and "they can be mass produced rapidly." He cautioned,
however, that they are extremely limited power-wise. Insect cyborgs, on the
other hand, "can harvest energy and continue missions of longer duration."
However, they "may be diverted from their task by stronger influences"; must
be grown to maturity and so may not be available when needed; and, of course,
are mortal and run the risk of dying before they can be employed as needed.
The Future Is Now
There is plenty of technical information about the HI-MEMS program available
in the scientific literature. And if you make inquiries, DARPA will even direct
you to some of the relevant citations. But while it's relatively easy to learn
about the optimal spots to insert a neural stimulator in a green June beetle
("behind the eye, in the flight control area of the insect brain") or an electronic
implant in a tobacco hawkmoth ("the main flight powering muscles … in the dorsal-thorax"),
it's much harder to discover the likely future implications of this sci-fi sounding
The "final demonstration goal" – the immediate aim – of DARPA's HI-MEMS program
"is the delivery of an insect within five meters of a specific target located
at a hundred meters away, using electronic remote control, and/or global positioning
system (GPS)." Right now, DARPA doesn't know when that might happen. "We basically
operate phase to phase," says Walker. "So, it kind of depends on how they do
in the current phase and we'll make decisions on future phases."
DARPA refuses to examine anything but research-oriented issues. As a result,
its Pentagon-funded scientists churn out inventions with potentially dangerous,
if not deadly, implications without ever fully considering – let alone seeking
public or expert comment on – the future ramifications of new technologies
"The people who build this equipment are always going to say that they're
just building tools, that there are legitimate uses for them, and that it
isn't their fault if the tools are abused," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's
Eckersley. "Unfortunately, we've seen that governments are more than willing
to play fast-and-loose with the legal bounds on surveillance. Unless and until
that changes, we'd urge researchers to find other projects to work on."
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com.
He has written for Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle,
Adbusters, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly
for TomDispatch. His first book, The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, has just been published
in Metropolitan Books' American Empire Project series. His Web site is NickTurse.com.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse