Insect Cyborg Sentinels

Authors:  Brittany Raffa

Date:  July 2007

David Erickson of Cornell University implanted a silicon chip inside flying insects to control their movement. The results were published June 22 by AZoNano. These "insect cyborg sentinels" ranging from cicadas to dragonflies are a new pass in cyborg technology, possessing the ability to detect details about the presence of harmful gases, explosives or viruses in the air. The project intends to control the insects' movement by motion trajectories obtained from GPS coordinates or from using an ultrasonic based remote control. Gaining control of an insect's movement is necessary because it enables scientists to position the insect in an area where a toxic substance is suspected to be present.

Insect Cyborg Sentinels combine living system technology with nanosystem technology, taking the best that a living system has with the best that engineers can do in building nanosystem technologies. Insects can fly up to two weeks without stopping, possessing an aerodynamic ability well developed over millions of years of evolution. This is a main factor for which they were chosen as the creature used in the project.

The insect cyborg sentinels are an innovation in the field of insect cyborgs. While prior technology attached the silicon systems to the body of the insect, the Erickson Lab places the systems inside the insect during the beginning stages of metamorphosis. This improves the healing process that occurs from one growth stage to the next and allows a dependable fixture of the system to the insect.

"We do that because its biology is rearranging at that point from caterpillar to a moth, so it's unrecognizable," Erickson explained. "So if we implant it at that stage, it then develops ... not knowing anything but having been a portion made of Silicon."

The technology of the Erickson Lab combines mechanical and aerospace engineering with nanobiotechnology. The Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) used for the cyborg project deals with technological instruments ranging from one millionth of a meter to one thousandth of a meter. The MEMS can be produced from a variety of materials and manufacturing methods, depending on the device being created and the market sector where it will operate. They are composed of silicon, polymers or metals.

The project is funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which has a full Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) Program. The goal of the program is to supply insects with most of the mechanical parts inside of the body to offer clandestine robots at a low cost. The Erickson project relies heavily on funding from DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office, which has given more than $2 million to the HI-MEMS program.

- By Brittany Raffa.