Water Week

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Radio-controlled moths a new force in “urban espionage”: US scientists inject computer-chips into bug larvae

Posted by waterweek on 17 October 2007

If it worked, it would give a new meaning to being bugged: a moth fluttering in through an open window may be just a nuisance today, but the time may not be far off when it would have far more sinister overtones, wrote Richard Macey in The Sydney Morning Herald (13/10/2007, p.6).

Camera-fitted bugs: American researchers were breeding moths that could be steered by radio control. Next they may attempt to develop tiny cameras and sensors light enough to be fitted to the bugs. The purpose? “Urban espionage,” said Mandyam Srinivasan, a professor of visual neuroscience at the University of Queensland. “They would be able to fly inside buildings, entering through windows and doors inconspicuously.” Perching on a wall, they could “take movies, record sounds” without raising suspicion. Professor Srinivasan knew about the work, funded by the United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, because he saw it recently while visiting Cornell University.

‘We have the technology’: The researchers created the radio-controlled insects by injecting computer chips into the larvae of giant hawk moths. When the larvae turned into moths the chips, activated by remote control, stimulated the flight muscles, allowing the bugs to be steered on the wing. “They said they have made it fly,” Professor Srinivasan said. “I have not seen it with my own eyes, but [one of the scientists] said she was able to steer it.”

Anti-war protest “buzzed”?: Despite the progress being made he was sceptical about reports this week that an anti­-war march in New York in 2004 was buzzed by “a jet-black dragonfly” hovering just above the ground. “My guess is they were real dragonflies.” The smallest flapping aircraft he knew of was one about 10 centimetres across developed recently by Japanese scientists. “It flaps and takes off,” but was rather clumsy. “It doesn’t seem to be a great flyer.” Further, the ultra-small, lightweight surveillance gear such tiny aircraft would have to carry to do any useful spying was still to be developed. However, Professor Srinivasan had no doubt insect-like spies were on the way. “It is just a matter of time.”

The Sydney Morning Herald, 13/10/2007, p. 6

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