September 6, 2011 - Scientific Ameican
(In the series “Visions,” science fiction about the very latest research will be paired with analysis looking into the facts behind the fiction. The goal is to marry ripped-from-the-headlines science fiction with analysis into the possibilities hinted at by new discoveries.)
Seiichiro Akamatsu, heir apparent of Akamatsu Technologies. I got to eliminate him with an Asian giant hornet, an insect I’ve wanted to use for the longest time. It’s beautifully huge, the largest wasp in the world, with a body up to a whopping 2 inches long, more than big enough for me to set up an electronic control harness onto. These already naturally kill up to dozens of people in Japan a year, so it was a nice, relatively covert assassination. I did coat the stinger of a hornet with extra mandaratoxin just to be safe. $100,000.
Juan Carlos Santos, a judge in Guatemala. The order wanted me to send a message to everyone, and I can’t think of anything more loud and clear than one of my spectacular Dragon Specials — dragonflies each carrying a bit of high explosive. Just fly it right next to a head and boom. $25,000. The price of murder-of-hire is generally very low there, but occasionally the narcotraficantes like to splurge — they certainly have the cash for it.
Azim Iqbal, a tribal leader in hiding in Pakistan. Hunting him down took a lot of the good old-fashioned spy work these insects were originally designed for. I had a few beetles surveil likely areas his associates would visit with miniature cameras until I finally got a ping off a cousin. Followed him with a moth back to where his family was hiding out, got video confirmation, and sent GPS coordinates for a missile strike. $75,000, which isn’t a lot given all the work that went into it, but I did it as a favor to a loyal customer.
Constantine Mountrakis, federal witness. The hits where they want me to send a message are fun — get to flex my creativity. This one was a little tricky, since I generally work with insects, not spiders, but I eventually managed to get the control systems right on a few. Once I was given the address, I hit him with three tarantulas just as he was walking to give his testimony, coating their fangs with extra neurotoxin to ensure termination. $100,000. It’s funny — I knew him in college. Small world.
It’s a good life. Most afternoons I spend sipping cafe au lait here in Munich, most nights I spend clubbing, and every so often I get to fly someplace exotic for my “public relations consulting firm.” Now and then I even let clients pilot the insects, and it’s fun to see them get all excited like kids playing a video game. They invariably say my line of work is the wave of the future.
Heh. And my parents told me I was just wasting my time by majoring in invertebrate zoology.
Instead of attempting to create miniature robots as spies, researchers are now experimenting with developing insect cyborgs or “cybugs” that could work even better, and so far scientists can already control real free-flying beetles using implanted devices. Although these cyborgs are often discussed as finding use in reconnaissance missions, I obviously think they could readily be weaponized.
The military and spy world no doubt would love tiny versions of Predator drones that could fly undetected into places nobody could ever go to peek on the enemy. Developing such robots has proven a major challenge so far, with one key hurdle being inventing an energy source for the droids that is both low weight and high power. Still, evidence that such machines are possible is ample in nature in the form of insects, which convert biological energy into flight.
It makes sense to pattern robots after insects — after all, they must be doing something right, seeing as they are the most successful animals on the planet, comprising roughly 80 percent of all known animal species. Indeed, scientists have patterned robots after insects and other animals for decades — to mimic the grasshopper’s leap, for instance, or cockroach wall-crawling.
Instead of attempting to create robots as complex as insect forms that required millions of years of evolution to achieve, scientists now essentially want to hijack bugs with electronics to create “hybrid insect vehicles.”
At first researchers sought to glue machinery onto the backs of insects to electronically control them, much as reins control horses, but such links were not always reliable. To overcome this hurdle, the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored research into surgically implanting microchips straight into insects as they grow, intertwining their nerves and muscles with circuitry that can then steer the critters.
The healing as these cyborgs naturally metamorphose from one stage to the next — for instance, from caterpillar to butterfly — is expected to yield a more reliable connection between the devices and the insects. The fact that insects are immobile during some of these developmental stages — for instance, when they are metamorphosing in cocoons — means they can be manipulated far more easily than if they were actively wriggling, suggesting these devices could be implanted with assembly-line routine and potentially significantly lowering costs. So far researchers have successfully embedded MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) into developing insects, and living adult insects have emerged with the embedded systems intact, a DARPA spokesperson told me a few years back.
Powering the devices the insects carry is tricky. However, a paper recently mentioned in a Discover article by Veronique Greenwood suggests one solution — harvesting power from the beating wings of insects to help them go without batteries. The research, appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, mounted piezolectric devices that generate power when bent or compressed on the thoraxes of green june beetles near where the wings attach.
These cyborgs might initially find use in reconnaissance, just as airplanes did, but as aerial warfare evolved, aircraft eventually found roles in combat against targets on land, sea and air, and I think the same might hold true for cybugs as well. Insects have actually been used as weapons for millennia, from catapults hurling beehives over enemy walls in ancient Roman times to Tanzanians using beehives in traps against the British during World War I, according to Amy Stewart’s book “Wicked Bugs.”
There remain significant challenges this research has to overcome before it ever sees the light of day. For instance, assuming one wants to remotely operate these hybrid insect vehicles, miniature cameras, transceivers and their power supplies have to be developed for the cyborgs. Also, insects are perishable, although torpor or refrigeration might be help keep some alive longer, depending on the species — for example, ladybugs can be stored in refrigerators for several months without food.
Once a discovery is made or a technology is created, unintended consequences inevitably result. As I’ve noted before, it’s said that good science fiction predicts the car while great science fiction comes up with the traffic jam. Who knows what might happen if these cybugs go beyond their intended military targets?
Incidentally, I’m just guessing wildly when it comes to the costs of the contract killings in the story — murder-for-hire fees aren’t exactly widely advertised, making reliable statistics hard to come by.
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