Page 3 of 3   <      

Dragonfly or Insect Spy? Scientists at Work on Robobugs.

"You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support," DARPA program manager Amit Lal said at a symposium in August. Today, he said, "this science fiction vision is within the realm of reality."

A DARPA spokeswoman denied a reporter's request to interview Lal or others on the project.

The cyborg insect project has its share of doubters.

"I'll be seriously dead before that program deploys," said vice admiral Joe Dyer, former commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, now at iRobot in Burlington, Mass., which makes household and military robots.

By contrast, fully mechanical micro-fliers are advancing quickly.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have made a "microbat ornithopter" that flies freely and fits in the palm of one's hand. A Vanderbilt University team has made a similar device.

With their sail-like wings, neither of those would be mistaken for insects. In July, however, a Harvard University team got a truly fly-like robot airborne, its synthetic wings buzzing at 120 beats per second.

"It showed that we can manufacture the articulated, high-speed structures that you need to re-create the complex wing motions that insects produce," said team leader Robert Wood.

The fly's vanishingly thin materials were machined with lasers, then folded into three-dimensional form "like a micro-origami," he said. Alternating electric fields make the wings flap. The whole thing weighs just 65 milligrams, or a little more than the plastic head of a push pin.

Still, it can fly only while attached to a threadlike tether that supplies power, evidence that significant hurdles remain.

In August, at the International Symposium on Flying Insects and Robots, held in Switzerland, Japanese researchers introduced radio-controlled fliers with four-inch wingspans that resemble hawk moths. Those who watch them fly, its creator wrote in the program, "feel something of 'living souls.' "

Others, taking a tip from the CIA, are making fliers that run on chemical fuels instead of batteries. The "entomopter," in early stages of development at the Georgia Institute of Technology and resembling a toy plane more than a bug, converts liquid fuel into a hot gas, which powers four flapping wings and ancillary equipment.

"You can get more energy out of a drop of gasoline than out of a battery the size of a drop of gasoline," said team leader Robert Michelson.

Even if the technical hurdles are overcome, insect-size fliers will always be risky investments.

"They can get eaten by a bird, they can get caught in a spider web," said Fearing of Berkeley. "No matter how smart you are -- you can put a Pentium in there -- if a bird comes at you at 30 miles per hour there's nothing you can do about it."

Protesters might even nab one with a net -- one of many reasons why Ehrhard, the former Air Force colonel, and other experts said they doubted that the hovering bugs spotted in Washington were spies.

So what was seen by Crane, Alarcon and a handful of others at the D.C. march -- and as far back as 2004, during the Republican National Convention in New York, when one observant but perhaps paranoid peace-march participant described on the Web "a jet-black dragonfly hovering about 10 feet off the ground, precisely in the middle of 7th avenue . . . watching us"?

They probably saw dragonflies, said Jerry Louton, an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Washington is home to some large, spectacularly adorned dragonflies that "can knock your socks off," he said.

At the same time, he added, some details do not make sense. Three people at the D.C. event independently described a row of spheres, the size of small berries, attached along the tails of the big dragonflies -- an accoutrement that Louton could not explain. And all reported seeing at least three maneuvering in unison.

"Dragonflies never fly in a pack," he said.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice said her group is investigating witness reports and has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with several federal agencies. If such devices are being used to spy on political activists, she said, "it would be a significant violation of people's civil rights."

For many roboticists still struggling to get off the ground, however, that concern -- and their technology's potential role -- seems superfluous.

"I don't want people to get paranoid, but what can I say?" Fearing said. "Cellphone cameras are already everywhere. It's not that much different."


<          3

© 2007 The Washington Post Company