The animal world has provided mankind with locomotion over millennia. For example we have used horses and elephants for locomotion in wars and conducting commerce. Birds have been used for sending covert messages, and to detect gases in coal mines, a life-saving technique for coal miners. More recently, olfactory training of bees has been used to locate mines and weapons of mass destruction. The HI-MEMS program is aimed to develop technology that provides more control over insect locomotion, just as saddles and horseshoes are needed for horse locomotion control.
Developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis.
Instead of attempting to create sophisticated robots that imitate the complexity in the insect form that required millions of years of evolution to achieve, scientists now essentially want to hijack bugs for use as robots.
Originally researchers sought to control insects by gluing machinery onto their backs, but such links were not always reliable. To overcome this hurdle, the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program is sponsoring research into surgically implanting microchips straight into insects as they grow, intertwining their nerves and muscles with circuitry that can then steer the critters. As expensive as these devices might be to manufacture and embed in the bugs, they could still prove cheaper than building miniature robots from scratch.
As these cyborgs heal from their surgery while they naturally metamorphose from one developmental stage to the next — for instance, from caterpillar to butterfly — the result would yield a more reliable connection between the devices and the insects, the thinking goes. The fact that insects are immobile during some of these stages — for instance, when they are metamorphosing in cocoons — means they can be manipulated far more easily than if they were actively wriggling, meaning that devices could be implanted with assembly-line routine, significantly lowering costs.
The HI-MEMS program at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has to date invested $12 million into research since it began in 2006. The ultimate goal of the HI-MEMS program is to provide insect cyborgs that can demonstrate controlled flight; the insects would be used in a variety of military and homeland security applications.
An interesting video is below where scientists controlled the flight of a moth that has been wired with electrodes.
(sources: DARPA and MSNBC and New Scientist)