Enlisting Insects in the Military


Land mines dot much of Afghanistan's dusty terrain, a land just a little smaller than Texas. According to Human Rights Watch's best estimates, only two of the country's 29 provinces are free of mines. The most heavily infested are Herat, in the northwest, and the Taliban's stronghold, Kandahar. Any U.S. ground offensive or U.N. nation-building efforts following the conflict likely would take place in and around Kandahar.

All mine-clearing activity in the country has been suspended since Sept. 12, according to the U.N. Mine Action Program. And when those efforts resume, research now being conducted by the Defense Dept.'s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could come in handy. Among a number of related projects, DARPA is sponsoring a three-year study at the University of Montana to determine if honeybees tagged with tiny radio packs can be used to detect land mines.

Best known for inventing the forerunner of the Internet, DARPA is spending $60 million over five years on projects that try to harness the animal kingdom's skills and instincts to the needs of the military. The honeybees and their microscopic radios -- each no larger than half a grain of rice -- represent 1 of 20 efforts being sponsored by DARPA's Controlled Biological & Biomimetic Systems Program.

MECHANO-ROACH. The research began with the recognition that even relatively simple organisms can boast sophisticated abilities to sense their environments and move about in them, says Alan Rudolph, the program's director. "We get inspiration from biological organisms to build new military hardware or to try to exploit animals' capabilities to improve national security," he says.

In addition to bees, DARPA is working to develop a robot known as RHex, which mimics the locomotive skills of a cockroach to move easily over rough terrain. In another project, scientists studying beetles' sophisticated infrared sensors hope that their observations may some day lead to a new generation of aircraft-mounted detection systems.

The effort is being pursued on three fronts: Aiming to update the canary in the coal mine, biosystems research concentrates on how organisms can be used to support military operations. Biohybrid studies are exploring technologies that exploit natural abilities and instincts -- attaching those radio-tracking tags to honeybees, for example. Finally, biomimetic programs attempt to replicate nature -- machines with, say, the go-anywhere mobility of a fast-moving gecko lizard.

EARNING THEIR STRIPES. In the biohybrid category, researchers first train bees to associate the smell of explosives with food by lacing sugar-soaked sponges with traces of TNT. Then they attach small radio packs to the bees and track them via complex electronic monitoring system located in an engineered hive. Whenever a tagged bee leaves the colony, observers can follow its travels and note where it lands.

Meanwhile, sensors inside the hive scan for chemicals or toxins that the bees' bodies, which Rudolph characterizes as electrostatic mops, absorb from the air. In theory, the combined information should allow troops to pinpoint and avoid minefields.

As wacky as all this may sound, bees already boast a rich history of patriotic service. From the late 1930s to 1953, the U.S. Army used the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland as a dump for chemical-warfare agents, unexploded munitions, and wastes from research and production facilities. Not surprisingly, seepage produced significant air and water pollution. Since anomalies in bee behavior are often associated with exposure to toxins such as PCE, which contains carcinogens, the Army has wired hives with infrared bee counters to track flight activity and search for deviations from the insects' normal patterns.

COMPLEX SCENT. Bees have not yet been tested on real land mines, but over the past eight months, researchers have mimicked land mines' "smell" in the field. The bees' ability to locate targets is impressive, Rudolph says.

Finding mines in a war zone could prove more difficult, however, since their signature scent above the soil is complex and can vary according to the amount of time they've been buried. Rudolph says bees may ultimately provide a greater service by detecting concealed explosives at borders and customs stations.

Beetles -- patricularly California's melanophila beetle -- caught researchers' attention because of their unique ability to "see" a forest fire from up to 40 miles away. "The reason they look for a forest fire is because beetles lay eggs in burned bark. They only have a limited period of time to find a forest fire before they no longer exist," Rudolph explains.

BETTER BOMBERS? Researchers discovered that each beetle has a unique sensory organ under its wings that can discern a forest fire's infrared signature. "As an infrared detector, the sensitivity it shows at living temperatures far exceeds our detectors, which require cryogenic temperatures and low-temperature cooling," says Rudolph.

Researchers not only explained how the beetle's sensor works but they also replicated it. Rudolph expects to have a prototype available for testing by the U.S. Air Force within 12 months. If it works, the technology could be used to improve warplanes' ability to identify bombing targets.

Understanding how animals move and applying that knowledge to a new generation of robots is another subject of research. Most vehicles run on wheels or tracks, which is fine on a road. But in places like mountainous Afghanistan, where roads are rudimentary and the terrain torturous, they don't do so well.

SCOUTING FOR SURVIVORS. Insect legs, by contrast, are designed for scurrying over rocky or uneven surfaces. To that end, University of Michigan researchers studied cockroaches, which any urban dweller knows can move with astonishing speed. The result is RHex, a six-leg robot that runs over rubble with ease, not to mention leaping obstacles and climbing stairs. RHex could be used in search-and-rescue operations, either to scout for survivors amid the rubble of disaster zones like the World Trade Center site or to bring back information from places where humans fear to tread.

Some robots are already being used for such tasks. In New York City on Sept. 13, small robots equipped with cameras and sensors to detect body heat were inserted into holes and pipes protruding from the twin towers' debris. The robot team found six victims, but no survivors. Unlike the cockroach-inspired RHex, those robots, which were developed at the University of Southern Florida, run on tank-style wheels and tracks. Animal-inspired robots could lead to deeper penetration of disaster sites.

"HIGH-PAYOFF PROJECTS." Practical applications derived from the study of bees, beetles, and cockroaches are years away. To add to their menagerie, researchers are also studying parasitic wasps, moths, and lobsters. While some critics have accused DARPA of pie-in-the-sky science, which the agency's defenders are quick to counter. "DARPA does high-risk, high-payoff projects. Conservative research is left to other organizations, like NIH [the National Institutes of Health] or the Department of Energy," says Carol Reiss, a professor of biology at New York University, who advises DARPA on some of its projects.

Should these experiments do nothing more than produce a viable system for clearing mines, untold numbers of civilian and military lives could be saved. In times like this, that kind of buzz is music to the ears. By Jane Black in New York


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