Beetle prepared with sensors and energy-harvesting devices (DARPA)
(wnd) The U.S. government is eyeing the idea of turning bugs – genuine live creepy-crawlies – into spies, thanks to the work of micro researchers at the University of Michigan.
According to results published in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, Professor Khalil Najafi, chairman of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to from insects.
The stated intention is to use insects as first responders for disasters, but the technology also is likely to usher in a new era for intelligence gathering.
Researchers have found insects get their energy from the food they eat and then use that energy to fly. In the process, some of the energy is wasted. The Michigan research team has exploited the wasted energy by attaching tiny electrical generators to the wings of the insect. The energy harvested could be further increased by using tiny on the tops of the wings.
“Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack,” Najafi said. “We could then send these ‘bugged’ bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go.”
While the university’s goal is for insects to be used in hazardous situations where it would not be safe for humans, the military is interested in the technology to further the dream of designing and fabricating micro-air-vehicles, or MAVs.
Creating tiny, lightweight flying vehicles capable of carrying a payload and being powered by a long-life onboard power source has proven to be extremely difficult, and Department of Defense researchers had almost abandoned work on real-life micro-scouts. This latest breakthrough, however, has breathed new life into the program.
Using tiny probes near the base of an insect’s antennae or electrodes implanted in the central nervous systems had already allowed government researchers to control an insect’s brain. Government researchers found it was easier to use living insects than build robotic insects from scratch. The problem they could not overcome was building a power source small enough for an insect to carry but powerful enough to power the surveillance equipment.
Now, working out of the university’s Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, Najafi and Aktakka harvest electro-mechanical energy from the insects wing movements. Two micro-generator prototypes convert the mechanical vibrations from the wings of a beetle into an electrical output. Placing the two generators on the wings can result in more than 45 micro-watts of power per insect. A direct connection between the generator and the flight muscles of the insect is expected to increase the final power output by a factor of 10 to at least 500 microwatts.
What brought the technology to the attention to the intelligence community was the fact that the energy generated by the bug could now power micro-surveillance equipment, such as a camera or microphone, for an extended period of time. (The research for turning insects into miniature electrical generators was funded by the Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, under grant number N66001-07-1-2006.)
While the university is pursuing patent protection for the intellectual property and is seeking commercialization partners to help bring the technology to market, DARPA seems to have other plans for the technology.
Robotic fliers have been used by the military since World War II, but in the past decade their numbers and level of sophistication have dramatically increased. The Defense Department has used nearly 100 different styles of drones, some the size of birds and some the size of small planes. As early as the 1970s the CIA secretly developed a mechanical “dragonfly” for spying. It has only been recently that miniature surveillance devices have been carried by living insects.
In 2007, insects seem to have been used for surveillance operations of short duration. “Dragonflies” and “little helicopters” were reported at anti-government rallies both in New York and Washington, D.C. Many suspect that the devices were deployed by the Department of Homeland Security.
In another project funded by DARPA, researchers are inserting computer chips into moth pupae – the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult – and hatching them into healthy “cyborg moths.”
The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HISMEMS) project aims to create literal flying cameras – insects whose nerves have grown into the implanted microprocessor so that operators can control them in flight. This would eliminate implanting probes into the insect, making for a more stable connection.
The research being done by Najafi and Aktakka has advanced the goal of an insect-silicone chip hybrid much faster than many in the military ever imagined. As recently as four years ago, Vice Admiral Joe Dyer, former commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, said of the nearly completed program, “I’ll be seriously dead before that program deploys.”
While development of fully mechanical micro-fliers is advancing quickly, they would never be mistaken for insects. This is what gives the biologic drones an edge.
However, for all their advantages, there is a downside for using real insects as spies.
“They can get eaten by a bird, they can get caught in a spider web,” said Electrical Engineering Professor Ron Fearing of Berkeley University. “No matter how smart they are – you can put a Pentium [chip] in there – if a bird comes at them at 30 miles per hour there’s nothing they can do about it.”
none of your bizzzzzzzzzness
Most people have no idea what rare earth elements are, but a wide array of the technologies that we use every single day are dependent on them. Without rare earth elements, we would have no hybrid car batteries, flat screen televisions, cell phones or iPods. Without rare earth elements, the entire “green economy” would not be able to function, because almost all emerging green technologies use them. Not only that, but rare earth elements are used by the U.S. military in radar systems, missile-guidance systems, satellites and aircraft electronics. Without rare earth elements, the U.S. military (and militaries all over the globe) would not be able to function. There are 17 key rare earth elements that we rely on every day. But there is a huge problem. China owns more than 85 percent of the known global reserves of rare earth elements. Right now, the rest of the world is absolutely dependent on China’s exports of these metals. Without these Chinese exports, the western world would quickly run out of these precious resources. But in just a few years, the rapidly expanding Chinese economy will gobble up the entire domestic production of Chinese rare earth elements. So what will the rest of the world do at that point?
This is a major problem that you aren’t hearing a lot about in the mainstream news.
But analysts are now predicting that by 2012 this could be a tremendous crisis.
So exactly what are rare earth elements?
Well, rare earth elements are a group of 17 relatively rare chemical elements that you can find on the periodic table. These rare metals have names you may not be familiar with such as lanthanum, cerium, tantalum, neodymium and europium. As mentioned above, they are used in products that we use every day such as laptop computers, iPhones, magnets, catalytic converters, night vision goggles and wind turbines. These metals are not well known, but they are absolutely crucial to our way of life.
So what is going to happen when we start running out of them?
According to The Independent, the move towards “green technology” will cause a dramatic increase in demand for rare earth metals in the years ahead. In fact, it is being projected that the world will need 200,000 tons of rare earth elements by the year 2014.
But analysts fear that China may drop exports of rare earth elements to exactly zero tons by 2012.
Can anyone else see a problem forming?
Last summer, one leaked report indicated that Chinese authorities were already considering a complete export ban of the most critical of the rare earth elements.
But while we may speculate when the complete ban is coming, the truth is that China has already moved to dramatically cut back exports of the metals.
China recently announced that they have cut export quotas for rare earth elements by 72 percent for the second half of 2010. The U.S. government reacted quite angrily to this news and warned that this could potentially cause a trade war.
TechNewsDaily recently quoted W. David Menzie, chief of the international minerals section at the U.S. Geological Survey, regarding the coming shortage of rare earth elements….
“Countries and companies that have or plan to develop industries that need rare earth minerals to make products are concerned about China’s growing consumption, which they fear will eliminate China’s exports of rare earths.”
So what needs to be done?
Well, nations and corporations that use rare earth elements need to start weaning themselves off the supply coming from China.
But there is a huge problem.
That cannot be done overnight.
According to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, building an independent U.S. supply chain for rare earth elements could take up to 15 years.
So what in the world will we do until then?
That is a very good question.
The truth is that those running the U.S. government are just not very good at thinking strategically.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office report mentioned above lists Mountain Pass, California as perhaps the largest non-Chinese rare earth deposit in the world.
But it almost fell into Chinese hands unnoticed.
You see, the mine in Mountain Pass is owned by Unocal, and in 2005 a Chinese bid for Unocal almost succeeded.
Yes, the Chinese were trying to strengthen their monopoly on rare earth elements and it almost worked.
Not that they don’t have the rest of the world in a very difficult situation already.
The truth is that if China cut off the export of all rare earth elements to the rest of the world tomorrow, it would throw the global economy into absolute chaos.
That is a lot of power for China to have.
Let’s just hope they don’t use it any time soon.
uh oh… one of those uh huh moments. we need to look at all these green technologies and ask ourselves how sustainable are they really?