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The Future of Drone Surveillance: Swarms of Cyborg Insect Drones

The future of drone surveillance is coming in a swarm of bug-sized flying spies.

Forget the roachbots and the swarm of MIT humanoid robots dancing in sync, as well as "disposable" quarter-sized kilobots which are "cheap enough to swarm in the thousands," and think instead of DARPA-like tiny insect cyborg drones that are "designed to go places that soldiers cannot" to work as spies or as swarm weapons. Is this a mosquito micro air vehicle (MAV)?

Alan Lovejoy wrote, "Such a device could be controlled from a great distance and is equipped with a camera, microphone. It could land on you and then use its needle to take a DNA sample with the pain of a mosquito bite. Or it could inject a micro RFID tracking device under your skin." While DNA-sucking, RFID-chip-injecting mosquito drones are currently a bunch of bunk, a Bing image search shows a multitude of MAVs that aren't simply CGI mockups.

This little MAV had a 3 centimeter wingspan and that was back in 2007. When the U.S. government was accused of making insect spy drones in 2007, Tom Ehrhard, a retired Air Force colonel and expert on unmanned aerial craft, told the Telegraph, "America can be pretty sneaky." The article also mentioned a dragonfly drone the CIA had developed in the 1970s.

While reading people's comments concerning spy drones flying overhead, there have been many comments about "skeet shooting" drones down from the sky. That would most likely be destroying government property and make a person a "terrorist." Besides, would you really see a tiny part bot, part bug "cyborg insect" drone from a distance if it was spying on you?

In 2008, the U.S. Air Force showed off bug-sized spies as "tiny as bumblebees" that would not be detected when flying into buildings to "photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists."

Many flying insect drones were developed into prototypes that year, but look again at the fly drone that could fit on the tip of your finger. Gizmo Insider suggested, "We've heard of a fly swatter, but what about a marksman trying to shoot down every fly he sees within a 100 yard radius. The future of warfare and intelligence collection just got a whole lot more sophisticated." That was five years ago, so what insect spy drones exist now that the public doesn't know about?

The MAV Ornithopter on the left, so-called "lethal mini drones," were being developed outside of Dayton, Ohio, and were set to roll-out by 2015.

Lockheed Martin's Intelligent Robotics Laboratories unveiled "maple-seed-like" drones called Samarai that also mimic nature. U.S. troops could throw them like a boomrang to see real-time images of what's around the next corner, the Navy Times reported. It could also be "useful for the military and police" to look inside buildings. But nano-biomimicry MAV design has long been studied by DARPA. DARPA's 2008 symposium discussed "bugs, bots, borgs and bio-weapons." The Pentagon's "cyborg moth" is now defunct tech and bat drone bots are also old surveillance news. Researchers have developed bio-inspired drones with bug eyes, bat ears, bird wings, and even honeybee-like hairs to sense biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

The future of hard-to-detect drone surveillance will mimic nature. The dragonfly "insect spy" drone is old, but bug-sized microdrones with flapping wings are still considered the future. The U.S. is not alone in miniaturizing drones that imitate nature; France has flapping wing bio-inspired microdrones [PDF] and the Netherlands BioMAV (Biologically Inspired A.I. for Micro Aerial Vehicles) developed a Parrot AR Drone last year; it's now available in the USA as a "flying video game" toy. DARPA's Hummingbird Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) was named by Time Magazine as one of the best 50 inventions of 2011.

John Hopkins University said in February 2012 that "butterfly research will aid the development of flying bug-size robots" and showed off this "insect-inspired flapping-wing MAV under development at Harvard University." That looks a great deal like the "fly drone" yet again, only this time compared to a penny. Are they commonly used and we just don't know it? The Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation funded the insect flight dynamics research, so John Hopkins reseachers have turned to studying even smaller MAV bugs like fruit flies.

The University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab showed off drones that swarm, a network of 20 nano quadrotors flying in synchronized formations. Engadget called them "four-bladed aerial ninjas," but the SWARMS goal is to combine swarm technology with bio-inspired drones to operate "with little or no direct human supervision" in "dynamic, resource-constrained, adversarial environments."

So the "mosquito" drone is fake, so far as we know, but the Air Force asked for itty bitty drones that could "covertly drop a mysterious and unspecified tracking 'dust' onto people, allowing them to be tracked from a distance." All of this drone tech is meant for military use, but would we really see these if they were deployed in America?

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