Recruiting six-legged creatures to fill the ranks of the U.S. armed forces is the latest idea coming from the Pentagon.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is calling on scientists from all disciplines to pool their expertise to create "insect cyborgs," or electromechanical insects, to be used in areas inaccessible or hostile to humans.
"The goal of the program is to develop these electronic systems that could be integrated into the insect, demonstrate that you could actually create that interface reliably in an insect, and demonstrate that you can use the electronics that's been embedded in the insect to control the locomotion of the insect," explained Jan Walker, the spokesperson for DARPA.
According to the solicitation on the agency's Web site, the creation of insect cyborgs would incorporate the technology of MEMS, or micro-electro-mechanical systems. DARPA advises implanting these micro systems into the insect during an early metamorphic stage. By doing so, the device has the greatest chance of getting assimilated into the insect's physiology.
"The beauty of it is that at the end of the larvae stage, the insect has a new skeleton," said John Ewer, an associate professor of entomology at Cornell University.
The DARPA document says this renewal process is characteristic of each metamorphic stage and allows an insect to "heal wounds and reposition internal organs around foreign objects."
"We have done preliminary experiments that have shown that microelectronics embedded in insects, in the larvae stage, can co-exist with the insect, and it can have a pretty normal life cycle," said Ephrahim Garcia, who works in the Laboratory for Intelligent Machine Systems at Cornell University. But, he cautioned, "It just can't take up too large a percentage of the body cavity."
DARPA's call for proposals requires three final demonstrations of this integration of a micro system in an insect. The insect cyborg must be remotely delivered to a location five meters from a specific target. Once delivered, it "must remain stationary either indefinitely or until otherwise instructed." Finally, it must have the capability "to transmit data from Department of Defense-relevant sensors," thereby giving a read on its surrounding environment.
None of which poses a small feat for those who submit proposals, experts told ABC News.
"This project requires only about three miracles of technology to work," said Garcia. "One, electronics packaging and integration with an insect; two, our ability to harvest power from the insect or the environment to power sensors and transmit and receive data; and three, controlling the behavior of the insect."
That last challenge was what caused past DARPA experiments with insects to fail. According to the solicitation, "the instinctive behaviors for feeding and mating" as well as "for responding to temperature change" caused the insects to fall short of their expected task.
"Part of the challenge will be where one has a chance to overcome a normal flight path," explained Ewer, whose areas of expertise include insect behavior, development and genetics. The problem with bees is they "need a hive to survive," he said, referring to the failure of a past DARPA experiment, in which, according to the American Forces Press Service, $3 million was allotted to training honeybees to detect explosives in the battlefield.
According to the experts who spoke with ABC News, solitary insects are the key to submitting a proposal to DARPA this time around, and moths top the list.
"They have been reared, and their development has been studied," said Ewer. They grow to be big and strong, he added, and "feed only on nectar or sugar water."
"There are moths, which can carry up to 2.8 grams," added Garcia, pointing to moths' strength as their best asset.
As for other picks, Ewer, the entomologist, pointed to cockroaches for being unobtrusive but speedy runners and to beetles for their strength as walkers. Although dragonflies hold allure for their size, Ewer cautioned that they are very fragile creatures.
Known for its high-risk ventures, DARPA may not be so off-target in this project.
"This will teach us a great deal about insect behaviors, neuromuscular response, and ways of interacting with neural signals and other cues that govern insect behavior," said Garcia. "If we are not able to create insect cyborgs, we will still greatly advance to several areas of engineering and extend our understanding of entomology."
"This experiment is worth a try for a lot of applications," added Ewer, citing its possible military benefits, namely in Iraq, as well as its possible advantage in mining and subway accidents.