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Posted: May 8, 2008
BAE Systems Signs Deal on Insect-Sized Robots
(Nanowerk News) BAE Systems in Merrimack has signed a $38 million agreement with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to lead a team to build insect-sized robots for government spying operations.
The Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) project will build a collection of intelligence-gathering insects, including a dragonfly and a spider. Wired with sensors and cameras for spying, the hand-held robots could be carried by a soldier onto the battlefield. The devices could be used in urban environments, complex terrain such as mountains and caves, and places inaccessible or dangerous for humans.
U.S. Army technician Dan Beekman said the drones could identify combatants in a room before a soldier enters, seek weapons caches, sense dangerous chemicals or gases or find people in a collapsed building.
"Think of an ensemble of these devices, similar to ant colonies or swarms of bees, a bunch of them going into an area and gathering information," BAE Systems Technical Director Mark Falco said.
Beekman said the military already has drones for spying, but those devices typically take more than one soldier to operate.
BAE Systems will lead the five-year program and integrate developmental studies in aeromechanics, ambulation, sensing, information processing and communication, navigation and control, the company said in a news release.
Information about the extent of government-controlled robotic insect technology is classified, but the idea of a mechanical insect spy has a long history.
The Central Intelligence Agency built a gasoline-powered, four-winged dragonfly -- or "insectothopter" -- in the 1970s, before the project was abandoned due to the instability of the bug in crosswinds.
Engineers say macro-scale aeromechanics so far have not been able to be reduced to smaller sizes while retaining flight performance. But about a year ago, researchers said, scientists clarified how a dragonfly adjusts front and back wings in flight to conserve energy.
Nanotechnology and laser micro-machining have converged to create government-backed insect programs at a number of universities.
Robert Wood, heading a Harvard University research team funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, built a 60-milligram mechanical fly based on modeling of a real housefly, with tiny wings moving at 120 beats a second. It made its maiden flight nine months ago.
Collaborators on the MAST project include the University of Michigan, University of Maryland and University of Pennsylvania, with support from the University of California at Berkeley, California Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of New Mexico and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
Government-academic-corporate partnerships to build robotic insects are created under the aegis of defense, although many privacy advocates, including Jay Stanley from the American Civil Liberties Union, say the technology opens the door for intrusion on the public.
"There are no laws to prevent robotic insects from operating in public," Stanley said. "Privacy laws (have) developed to secure audio communications, but there is nothing equivalent for video-recording."
BAE's Falco said the program is not created to compromise public privacy rights, but to protect soldiers in combat.
"I don't see any difference from using cameras on the battlefield right now," he said. "But for a soldier who enters an urban area and kicks down a door, they are in great danger. If you could use this technology, figure out if people are in a room, it reduces risk quite a bit."