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Scientist: Military Working on Cyborg Spy Moths

At some point in the not-too-distant future, a moth may take flight in the hills of northern Pakistan, and flap towards a suspected terrorist training camp.

But this will be no ordinary moth.

Inside it will be a computer chip that was implanted when the creature was still a pupa, in the cocoon, meaning that the moth's entire nervous system can be controlled remotely.

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The moth will thus be capable of landing in the camp without arousing suspicion, all the while beaming video and other information back to its masters via what its developers refer to as a "reliable tissue-machine interface."

The creation of insects whose flesh grows around computer parts — known from science fiction as cyborgs — has been described as one of the most ambitious robotics projects ever conceived by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Rod Brooks, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is involved with the research, said in a speech last week at the University of Southampton in England that robotics was increasingly at the forefront of U.S. military research.

Brooks said that the remote-controlled moths, described by DARPA as just part of its overall research into microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, were one of a number of technologies soon to be deployed in combat zones.

"This is going to happen," said Brooks. "It's not science like developing the nuclear bomb, which costs billions of dollars. It can be done relatively cheaply."

"Moths are creatures that need little food and can fly all kinds of places," he continued. "A bunch of experiments have been done over the past couple of years where simple animals, such as rats and cockroaches, have been operated on and driven by joysticks, but this is the first time where the chip has been injected in the pupa stage and 'grown' inside it."

"Once the moth hatches," Brooks said, "machine learning is used to control it."

Brooks has worked on robotic technology for more than 30 years and is a founder of iRobot, the MIT-derived manufacturer of both Roomba robot floor cleaners and PackBots, military robots used by the Pentagon to defuse explosive devices laid by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brooks said that the military would be increasingly reliant on "semi-autonomous" devices, including ones which could fire.

"The DoD has said it wants one-third of all missions to be unmanned by 2015, and there's no doubt their things will become weaponized, so the question comes: Should they be given targeting authority?"

"The prevailing view in the army at the moment seems to be that they shouldn't," he said, "but perhaps it's time to consider updating treaties like the Geneva Convention to include clauses which regulate their use."

Debates such as those over stem-cell research would "pale in comparison" to the increasingly blurred distinction between creatures — including humans — and machines, Brooks told the Southampton audience.

"Biological engineering is coming," Brooks said. "There are already more than 100,000 people with cochlear implants, which have a direct neural connection, and chips are being inserted in people's retinas to combat macular degeneration. By the 2012 Olympics, we're going to be dealing with systems which can aid the oxygen uptake of athletes."

"There's going to be more and more technology in our bodies, and to stomp on all this technology and try to prevent it happening is just ... well, there's going to be a lot of moral debates," he said.

Another iRobot project being developed as part of the U.S. military's "Future Combat Systems" program, Brooks said, was a small, unmanned vehicle known as a SUGV (pronounced "sug-vee"), basically the next generation of the PackBot, one which could be dispatched in front of troops to gauge the threat in an urban environment.

The 30-pound device, which can survive a drop of 30 feet onto concrete, has a small "head" with infra-red and regular cameras which send information back to a command unit, as well as an audio-sensing feature called "Red Owl" which can determine the direction from which enemy fire originates.

"It's designed to be the troop's eyes and ears and, unlike one of its predecessors, this one can swim, too," Mr Brooks said.