It seems DARPA, the ultra-secretive military research agency, may be getting a run for its money when it comes to developing advanced and alarming forms of surveillance. A private research venture has produced a genetically modified cyborg dragonfly that can deliver payloads, as well as perform ‘guided pollination’ and surveillance missions. Using insects as covert forms of spying on citizens has long been a dream of the government. It appears the day is finally upon us when that weird bug flying a little too close for comfort may actually be one of Uncle Sam’s little insectoid deputies.
Called DragonflEye, the GM cyborg is half-insect, half-machine and is controlled via a fingernail-sized backpack, which allows a remote operator to control its direction. The dragonfly is powered by a solar panel. Developed by R&D company Draper Labs in collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, the project required new technology. Controlling the dragonfly’s flight navigation actually required modifying the dragonfly to react to pulses of light. This involved giving the insect a gene that creates light-sensitive proteins.
“Draper developed a miniaturized backpack for autonomous navigation and a flexible optrode to control the modified neurons by guiding light around the dragonfly’s tiny nerve cord,” said Jesse Wheeler, a senior biomedical engineer at Draper Labs. “Howard Hughes Medical Institute focused on developing gene delivery methods specific to the dragonfly to make special ‘steering’ neurons sensitive to light…Draper developed a miniaturized backpack for autonomous navigation and a flexible optrode to control the modified neurons by guiding light around the dragonfly’s tiny nerve cord.”
It’s somewhat of a cliche to jokingly refer to a surrounding insect or bird as a clandestine spy deployed by the government or an insidious corporation to watch you. While we lack certain specifics on the ubiquity of the technology, we know definitively that the government has the technology to surveil citizens using insects and other small animals, and they use this technology in military applications.
There is some evidence to suggest that insect drones are already used domestically to spy on citizens. In 2007, this theory conspiracy theory took shape when anti-war protesters reported strange buzzing insects. Written off as tin foil material, officials dismissed the suggestion that the government used insect drones to spy. Interestingly, at this time, multiple witnesses reported erratic dragonfly-type objects hovering in the sky. The very next year, the US Air Force announced their intended use of insect-sized spies to infiltrate buildings in order to “photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists.”
While we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that there are insect drones spying on American citizens, what is irrefutable is the use of micro air vehicles (MAVs) and “spy animals” as war-time tools. DARPA launched its Stealthy Insect Sensor Project in 1999 as an effort to deputize bees as bomb locators in war zones. This was just the first phase of an on-going project. In her book, The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency, journalist Annie Jacobsen revealed that the agency’s near-future trajectory is to introduce “biohybrids” — part animal, part machine cyborgs — into the United States’ military arsenal.
It is perhaps prudent at this time to point out that both the government and private institutions have a well-established track record of investing in citizen surveillance. And sometimes, they work together. For decades, top-secret federal projects — including MKULTRA and what some have dubbed Operation Mockingbird — conscripted firms, think tanks, universities and research groups into their work.
While DragonflEye may or may not be the product of government collusion, there is certainly a concerted effort across the board to create insect drones capable of citizen surveillance. This should be highly alarming to civil rights activists and citizens alike.