Why make tiny flying drones when you can fly real insects by remote-control? It could lead to a neuroscience revolution, explains Emily Anthes in an excerpt from her new book Frankenstein's Cat
In 2006 the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) asked America's scientists to submit "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs" .
It was not your everyday government request, but it was an utterly serious one. For years, the US military has been hoping to develop "micro air vehicles" – ultra-small flying robots capable of performing surveillance in dangerous territory. Building these machines is not easy. The dynamics of flight change at very small sizes, and the vehicles need to be lightweight enough to fly, yet strong enough to carry cameras and other equipment. Most formidably, they need a source of power, and batteries light enough for microfliers just don't have enough juice to keep the crafts aloft for very long. Consider the tiny, completely synthetic drones that engineers have managed to create: the DelFly Micro, which measures less than 10cm from wingtip to wingtip, can stay airborne for just three minutes.
Darpa officials knew there had to be something better out there. "Proof of existence of small-scale flying machines… is abundant in nature in the form of insects," Amit Lal, a Darpa programme manager and Cornell engineer, wrote in a pamphlet the agency issued to the prospective researchers.
Perhaps, Darpa officials realised, the military didn't need to start from scratch; if they began with live insects, they'd already be halfway to their dream flying machines. All they'd have to do was figure out how to hack into insects' bodies and control their movements.