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US Air Force studies fruit-flies to build killer insect swarm drones

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The US Air Force is engaged in wacky research on fruit flies manoeuvring within a heavily instrumented "simulation tunnel" in order to develop tiny, potentially murderous insect-sized flying robots.

According to a statement issued yesterday by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), research underway at in Californian labs will teach military designers how to build tiny robot aircraft which can fly around indoors or in built-up areas the way flies do.

"This work investigates sensory-motor feedback mechanisms in the insect brain that could inspire new approaches to flight stabilization and navigation in future insect-sized vehicles for the military," said Dr Willard Larkin of AFOSR.

Dr Andrew Straw of Caltech, leading the project for the Air Force, has built a special arena for his test flies to aviate around in, with video walls allowing a simulated environment to be presented to the fly. The insect test subject is tracked using a cunning multi-camera system.

"We developed a 3D fly tracking system which was our most significant technical challenge: localizing a fly in 3D nearly instantaneously," says Straw. "Next, we developed visual stimulus software capable of making use of this information to project virtual edges and textured floors in which we could modify the fly's sensory-motor feedback mechanism."

According to the AFOSR:

The scientists have found that, counter to earlier studies suggesting that insects adjust their height by measuring the motion beneath them as they fly, flies in fact follow horizontal edges of objects to regulate altitude. Remarkably, this edge following behavior is very similar to a rule they use for steering left and right and always turning towards vertical edges.

If Straw and his colleagues can work out the rules the flies use to navigate - thought to be primarily visually based - it could be possible to design control systems for so-called Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs, small robot aircraft already in development) which would let them manoeuvre in places where there is no GPS signal.

Then the dark/exciting future shown in the vid above could become reality, with tiny military swarm droids scattering across towns or cities to locate or spy on persons of interest to the US authorities. They might even, as shown in the vid at around three minutes, be able to land on the back of your neck and blow your head off using some kind of tiny warhead.

Amazing what they can do nowadays. ®

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