HI-MEMS: Cyborg Beetle Microsystem

The HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) program instituted by DARPA is beginning to bear fruit. The University of Michigan team has successfully created a cyborg unicorn beetle microsystem.

(UM Cyborg Beetle Microsystem)

The research was showcased at MEMS 2008, an international academic conference on MEMS that took place from January 13-17 in Tucson, AZ. The embedded probe has four electrodes. One is implanted in the control region of the brain, with two others being placed in the right and left muscles that move the wings. The cyborg beetle is able to take off and land, turn left or right and demonstrate a number of other flight control behaviors.

HI-MEMS is a DARPA program initiated by Program Manager Dr. Amit Lal.

The HI-MEMS program is aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis. These early stages include the caterpillar and the pupae stages. Since a majority of the tissue development in insects occurs in the later stages of metamorphosis, the renewed tissue growth around the MEMS will tend to heal, and form a reliable and stable tissue-machine interface. The goal of the MEMS, inside the insects, will be to control the locomotion by obtaining motion trajectories either from GPS coordinates, or using RF, optical, ultrasonic signals based remote control.

(UM Cyborg Beetle summary of implant survival )

Dr. Lal got the idea for remote-controlled insects from the 1990 science fiction novel Sparrowhawk, by Thomas A. Easton. Dr. Easton, a professor of science at Thomas College. In the novel, he writes about genetically engineered animals that are greatly enlarged, and then outfitted with implanted control structures.

"There's the brain, the spinal chord, the motor centers. A cable, here, from the controller to the interface plug... wires from that to the brain." She explained how the controller, a computer, translated movements of the tiller or control yoke and the throttle and brake pedals into electrical signals and routed them as appropriate to the jets or the genimal's motor centers, triggering the genimal's own nervous system into commanding its muscles to serve the driver. All the necessary programming was built into the hardware...
(Read more about the Roachster)

The final milestone at the end of phase three of the HI-MEMS project is flying a cyborg insect to within five meters of a specific target starting at a distance of one hundred meters. Researchers may use remote control or automated systems using global positioning system (GPS). If a research team passes this test successfully, then DARPA can begin breeding in earnest. As the pictures below demonstrate, the cyborg beetle is getting close to meeting the spec.

(UM Cyborg Beetle Microsystem in flight)

Electrical stimulation of wing muscles on either side initiates a turn. Beetles mounted on a long string (10 cm) were programmed with a continuous sequence of left, pause, right, pause instructions; each instruction lasted two seconds. (a) left flight muscle stimulation generates a right turn, followed by (b) a pause during which the beetle zigs and zags, followed by (c) right muscle stimulation which generates a left turn. Each photograph consists of ten frames; frames were taken every 0.2 seconds.
The vision of HI-MEMS - insect swarms with various sorts of different embedded MEMS sensors (like video cameras, audio microphones and chemical sniffers)could penetrate enemy territory in swarms. The HI-MEMS swarms could then perform reconnaissance missions beyond the capabilities of bulky human soldiers.

Update 30-Sep-2011: Fans of Philip K. Dick will not be surprised to learn that he anticipated this idea in 1964 in his novel Lies, Inc.. See the reference for the housefly monitor. End update.

Learn more about HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electrico-Mechanical Systems Sought By DARPA; additional work reviewed at HI-MEMS: Control Circuits Embedded In Pupal Stage Successfully. Via Robot Watch. See also this informative article Darpa hatches plan for insect cyborgs to fly reconnaissance.

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