Beetle prepared with sensors and energy-harvesting devices (DARPA)

The U.S. government is eyeing the idea of turning bugs – genuine live creepy-crawlies – into spies, thanks to the work of micro researchers at the University of Michigan.

According to results published in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, Professor Khalil Najafi, chairman of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to harvest energy from insects.

The stated intention is to use insects as first responders for disasters, but the technology also is likely to usher in a new era for intelligence gathering.

Researchers have found insects get their energy from the food they eat and then use that energy to fly. In the process, some of the energy is wasted. The Michigan research team has exploited the wasted energy by attaching tiny electrical generators to the wings of the insect. The energy harvested could be further increased by using tiny solar cells on the tops of the wings.

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“Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack,” Najafi said. “We could then send these ‘bugged’ bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go.”

While the university’s goal is for insects to be used in hazardous situations where it would not be safe for humans, the military is interested in the technology to further the dream of designing and fabricating micro-air-vehicles, or MAVs.

Creating tiny, lightweight flying vehicles capable of carrying a payload and being powered by a long-life onboard power source has proven to be extremely difficult, and Department of Defense researchers had almost abandoned work on real-life micro-scouts. This latest breakthrough, however, has breathed new life into the program.

Using tiny probes near the base of an insect’s antennae or electrodes implanted in the central nervous systems had already allowed government researchers to control an insect’s brain. Government researchers found it was easier to use living insects than build robotic insects from scratch. The problem they could not overcome was building a power source small enough for an insect to carry but powerful enough to power the surveillance equipment.

Cyborg spy?

Now, working out of the university’s Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, Najafi and Aktakka harvest electro-mechanical energy from the insects wing movements. Two micro-generator prototypes convert the mechanical vibrations from the wings of a beetle into an electrical output. Placing the two generators on the wings can result in more than 45 micro-watts of power per insect. A direct connection between the generator and the flight muscles of the insect is expected to increase the final power output by a factor of 10 to at least 500 microwatts.

What brought the technology to the attention to the intelligence community was the fact that the energy generated by the bug could now power micro-surveillance equipment, such as a camera or microphone, for an extended period of time. (The research for turning insects into miniature electrical generators was funded by the Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, under grant number N66001-07-1-2006.)

While the university is pursuing patent protection for the intellectual property and is seeking commercialization partners to help bring the technology to market, DARPA seems to have other plans for the technology.

Robotic fliers have been used by the military since World War II, but in the past decade their numbers and level of sophistication have dramatically increased. The Defense Department has used nearly 100 different styles of drones, some the size of birds and some the size of small planes. As early as the 1970s the CIA secretly developed a mechanical “dragonfly” for spying. It has only been recently that miniature surveillance devices have been carried by living insects.

In 2007, insects seem to have been used for surveillance operations of short duration. “Dragonflies” and “little helicopters” were reported at anti-government rallies both in New York and Washington, D.C. Many suspect that the devices were deployed by the Department of Homeland Security.

In another project funded by DARPA, researchers are inserting computer chips into moth pupae – the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult – and hatching them into healthy “cyborg moths.”

The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HISMEMS) project aims to create literal flying cameras – insects whose nerves have grown into the implanted microprocessor so that operators can control them in flight. This would eliminate implanting probes into the insect, making for a more stable connection.

The research being done by Najafi and Aktakka has advanced the goal of an insect-silicone chip hybrid much faster than many in the military ever imagined. As recently as four years ago, Vice Admiral Joe Dyer, former commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, said of the nearly completed program, “I’ll be seriously dead before that program deploys.”

While development of fully mechanical micro-fliers is advancing quickly, they would never be mistaken for insects. This is what gives the biologic drones an edge.

However, for all their advantages, there is a downside for using real insects as spies.

“They can get eaten by a bird, they can get caught in a spider web,” said Electrical Engineering Professor Ron Fearing of Berkeley University. “No matter how smart they are – you can put a Pentium [chip] in there – if a bird comes at them at 30 miles per hour there’s nothing they can do about it.”

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