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DARPA (the Pentagon asylum for usefully-insane scientists) is apparently making progress with its plan to build cyborg infiltrator machines wearing living creatures like fleshy cloaks.

Lest anyone think that this is a story about California politics, however, one should note that thus far DARPA and its associated groups are working with moths rather than immense Austrian bodybuilders.

Flight International reports that engineering boffin Robert Michelson - perhaps most famous for his "Entomopter" synthimuscle-flapper insectoid Martian mini-bot plan - gave an update on the DARPA programme at a joint US-Indian miniflybot conference on Friday.

Encouragingly - for those who find the cyborg concept appealing, anyway - it seems DARPA has found that it is indeed possible to pull out the middle of a suitable creature, throw all the entrails in the bin, and slip a mechanoid core into the resulting freed-up space. The machine's fleshy cloak will even go on to show good tissue growth afterwards, at least in the case of Manduca moths.

It seems, however, that the Pentagon bug-boffins would like to be able to borg up an insect at far-flung military bases, rather than just in specialist US facilities. Otherwise, the living outer cladding of the miniature machine spy might die of old age before it got to the front lines.

"You'd like this [lepidopterine listener] to be created out where you need it rather than in a lab in California," said Michelson.

In the longer term, the plan will be to fit selected insects with a range of sensors for (cough) bugging purposes, perhaps harvest bioelectric power from them, and somehow get the little fellows to fly under remote or autonomous computer control. Methods previously suggested for this last challenge include tiny jump-leads clipped onto their nervous systems, small transparent displays fixed over their eyes, or "projection of ultrasonic pulses simulating bats". The use of pheromone smell-control has also been mooted.

Needless to say, the biomimetic borg arms race seems already to have begun. DARPA and Georgia Tech with their puny moth-terminators may rue the day they went up against the US Army/U-Michigan chiropterthopter war bat with its smell scanners and gargoyle mode.

The counterstroke would almost inevitably involve the use of Robocop-style powered assist mechwarrior gear with moths at the controls - again, something already being trialled.

Read the Flight report here. ®

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