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Sacred & Mundane

Spy Flies

by Kathleen Yale

Published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion magazine



For thousands of years humans have used animals for transportation, trade, and farming. We’ve used homing pigeons to deliver covert messages, sent sentinel canaries down coal mines, and ridden horses, camels, and elephants brazenly into battle. Now, with an idea literally inspired by a cyborg-ridden science-fiction novel, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s fundamental research and development program for Hybrid-Insect Microelectromechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) aims to harness insect power.

By implanting micromechanical systems inside larval insects, researchers can watch developing tissue fuse to, and grow around, tiny machinery as the insect undergoes metamorphosis. Should the project prove successful, enabled insect cyborgs (directed by remote-control signals) could eventually carry miniature implanted equipment, such as microphones, video cameras, or gas sensors, to relay information collected from target destinations. “The program is aimed to develop technology that provides more control over insect locomotion,” says project manager Dr. Amit Lal, “just as saddles and horseshoes are needed for horse locomotion control.” Last year the first implanted pupae, a Manduca moth, survived to adulthood.

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Kathleen Yale mixes well in the west, midwest, and east, recently as an editorial intern at Orion.

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