A Future Filled with Cyborg Bugs?

cyborg snail

Researchers led by Evgeny Katz, the Milton Kerker Chaired Professor of Colloid Science at Clarkson University, have implanted a biofuel cell in a living snail. (Photo courtesy of Clarkson University)

Imagine a world inhabited by tiny insects outfitted with cameras, microphones, or other sensors. Though it might sound like a scene straight out of a science fiction novel, researchers are edging ever closer to making this scenario a reality.

Recently, researchers at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York successfully implanted a biofuel cell into a living snail. This biofuel cell extracts energy from glucose and oxygen found within the snails hemolymph (blood). Electrical energy is generated when electrodes are attached to an external circuit. The amount of electrical energy produced by the snail is limited to the size of the implanted electrode. On average, the snails produced about 7.45 microwatts of power, though after a period of 45 minutes, the snails ability to produce electrical energy dropped by 80 percent. The researchers found that in order to produce a continuous amount of power, the electrical energy must be extracted at a level of 0.16 microwatts. The snails are able to regenerate the glucose lost to energy production by normal processes such as eating and resting.

Research conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan is focusing on harnessing an insects own energy from either its body heat or movements. Recently, engineers developed a device that converts the kinetic energy from a June beetles wing movements into electrical energy. This electrical energy can be used to power small sensors implanted into the insects body.

The U.S. Department of Defense has funded similar cyborg insect (or cybugs) research endeavors for a number of years. The intention of this research is to develop insects that can be outfitted with cameras, microphones, and other sensors, which could be used to gather intelligence for military functions. Initial research attempted to control insects by attaching machinery onto their backs. However, this method proved to be impractical and unreliable. In 2006, the Hybrid Insects Micro Electromechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program was instituted through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to sponsor research that involves the implantation of microchips directly into insects. As the insects grow, the circuitry becomes embedded in their nerves and muscles. The thought is that researchers can use this embedded circuitry to control the insects movements. Since its inception, HI-MEMS has invested more than $12 million into this research. In addition to their use by the military, cyborg insects could also be potentially used in environmental applications as well. Cameras and gas sensors could be used to monitor or determine the severity of environmental hazards such as chemical spills.

More to Explore

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Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

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