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Harvard boffins have achieved a significant milestone in their quest to build robot flies which could be used by the government to really bug people.

MIT's Technology Review reports that a team of brainboxes led by Professor Robert Wood, one of America's top artificial-insect men, has achieved the first flight of a "life-size" biomimetic fly after seven years of intensive research.

That said the fly is actually a trifle on the large side, with a wingspan of 3cm. Also, it can't actually fly independently - the tiny machine needs a tether to keep it flying straight and upward, or it would wander off course and prang itself.

Oh, and it doesn't have onboard power - it needs to draw juice via the tether. And there's no way of controlling it.

But apart from that, the robo-fly is cutting-edge, and widely admired among the insectoid-machine design community.

"It is certainly a major breakthrough," commented Professor Ron Fearing of California's Berkeley University. Fearing's rival bug-droid can't, as yet, get airborne at all. Fearing and Wood have worked together on earlier insectobots.

"It's quite a major thing," agreed Wood modestly, when contacted by Tech Review.

"When I got the fly to take off, I was literally jumping up and down in the lab ... a lot of people thought it would never be able to take off."

Once the diminutive buzz-bot's trifling technical issues are resolved, its creator expects that it will go into service as a miniature surveillance device with the feds or the military. Perhaps not actually fly-on-the-wall style - the device appears to boast no suction feet or similar grip-tech - but maybe just hovering or perching unobtrusively.

"You probably wouldn't notice a fly in the room," Wood told Tech Review, "but you certainly would notice a hawk."

Unless you were in your hawk room, perhaps.*

By now, the source of Wood's funding may come as no surprise to regular readers. Yes, it's those crazy coots at DARPA, the Pentagon wild-science outfit.

Wood also gave it as his opinion that

"Nature makes the world's best fliers."

Best as in the fastest? Biggest payload? What? It's all very puzzling. Anyway, if the good professor likes natural insects so much, perhaps he should be in DARPA's other using-bugs-to-bug-people-once-we-get-the-bugs-out programme, involving mini-Terminator machine-cored living cyborg moths, as opposed to these full-on robot flies. Although Wood's machines might be more resistant to al-Quaida countermeasures such as bug spray, or perhaps trained toads or spiders.

We say: thank god for DARPA and university robotics departments. They're worth every penny on entertainment value alone. The full Tech Review report is here

*We're not (entirely) kidding. According to some reports:

"Falconry camps are a favorite pastime of the Arab world's elites – a place where leaders meet, and business deals are conducted. For bin Laden and his al-Qaida, falconry [hunting with trained hawks or falcons] provided a similar networking opportunity ...

"'The falcon camps were al-Qaida's board room,' [Falconry expert Alan] Parrot said. 'This is where bin Laden went to meet with political leaders and money men' from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E."

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