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Robo-Roach and Spy-Fly may one day creep into your neighborhood

U. S. and Russian insect robotics engineers are racing each other to develop miniature drones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering

Bug sprays won’t neutralize these high-tech six-legged crawlers; you’ll need at least a hammer

COMPTON — Russian scientists and engineers have developed a robotic cockroach that looks and moves like an insect and can carry a tiny camera, the country’s Baltic Federal Immanuel Kant University has revealed. Newsweek reported the development last week

But, if the Russians think they’ve gone one up on the rest of the world in insect robotics, they need to think again. U.S. insect robotics engineers beat them to the buzz by two years. Harvard University researcher scientists created a robotic fly in 2013, with the ability to perform the agile aerial maneuvers of the insect.

Robo-fly’s masterminds Drs. Kevin Ma and Robert Wood of Harvard University say the mechanical fly was engineered from carbon fiber, weighs a fraction of a gram and has super-fast electronic “muscles” to power its wings. It looks exactly like a fly, zipping to and fro, zig-zagging, hovering, and alighting like a fly.

As to which nation was first to invent this remarkable technology get’s eclipsed by the sheer magnitude of these astonishing engineering feats. Both deserve to occupy the same pedestal in history.

Now, getting back to the Robo-Cockroach. The Russian military was the spearhead to the inventive technology. That cannot be denied. According to the Newsweek article, the robot is four inches long and can move at the speed of 12 inches per second. It is equipped with a photosensitive sensor, as well as contact and contactless sensors meaning it can track obstacles while traveling. The potential is enormous to either a military or law enforcement application in reconnaissance as a subversive.

As insects often do, cockroaches, flies, and moths (also in design development) habitually park themselves on walls during day or night (more likely at night for cockroaches and moths); no one thinks any different, although, depending on its proximity, the sight of a four-inch cucaracha might make a person look twice.

Consider the implications for something like illicit drug interdiction. Cockroaches are nearly universal and live in a wide range of environments, none more common than grimy, slums in big cities, often congregating just beneath the street in warm, damp gutters, or within buildings.

In some urban areas where street drugs abound, the utilization of robotic cockroaches, spy-flies and mechanical moths under the cover of darkness, would seem the perfect guise for “deep cover” concealment.

Russian scientists say their prototype can only move for 20 minutes at a time, but by the end of 2015, will be able to move for longer periods, either autonomously or to follow a predetermined route.

That won’t be necessary for something as time constraining as surveillance. Robotic insect operatives would have only to be motionless to record the criminal dealings.

Some might believe this is a world far off, but it may actually be an Orwellian “New World” government intrusion just around the bend.

According to scientists at Kant University in Kaliningrad, where the robot was developed, they spent considerable time observing the movements of real cockroaches to ensure the robot’s own movements were as insect-like and organic as possible.

Although the prototype is not currently mounted with a recording device, it is capable of carrying up to 10 grams that scientists say would accommodate a tiny camera, with which it will be able to penetrate nearly inaccessible areas.

Back to Robo-Fly. While cockroaches generally are earth-bound (though they are capable of flying), flies are more naturally suited aerialists, which may make them more effective in accumulating intelligence over a wide area.

A story published in 2013 in the Harvard University house organ, Gazette, says tiny robots like theirs may eventually be used in rescue operations, navigating through tiny spaces in collapsed buildings.

Designers Ma and Wood, say their Robo-Fly is engineered in such a precise manner, that it has the fly-like agility to evade even the swiftest of human efforts to swat them. Talk about Atom Ant! But this is not a figment of the cartoon world. It’s the real deal. This wizardry largely comes from very precise wing movements. Ma and Wood explain that by “constantly adjusting the effect of lift and thrust acting on [Robo-Fly’s] body at an incredibly high speed, the robot’s wings enable it to hover, or to perform sudden evasive maneuvers.

Like a real fly, the robot’s thin, flexible wings beat approximately 120 times a second. The Gazette article says that Ma and Wood ingeniously achieved this wing speed with a special substance called piezoelectric, which contracts every time a voltage is applied to it. By very rapidly switching the voltage on and off, the scientists were able to make this material behave just like the diminutive muscles that make a fly’s wings beat so rapidly.

“We get it to contract and relax, like biological muscle,” Ma explained, adding, the uses for such a diminutive flying robot could be numerous.

“They [could] be used for environmental monitoring, to be dispersed into a habitat to sense trace chemicals or other factors. He even suggested they could behave like many real insects and assist with the pollination of crops like their real counterparts.

A surreptitious and foreboding application, however, could be for surveillance and intelligence-gathering by agencies like Homeland Security, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, which would incite new debate about increasing government intrusion and privacy issues.

On a local law enforcement level, the application of insect robotic technology, for the same reasons aforementioned — notably street drug interdiction — would not be far behind.

In the age of counter-terrorism following 9/11, the debate between what constitutes a tradeoff between the disintegrating public right to privacy versus national security will likely increase. There has already been vigorous debate in Congress after passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, in how far the NSA will be permitted to go in the covert attainment of business and telephone records of millions of Americans.

Once scientists and engineers solve the autonomy issues with respect to robotic insect technology and the miniature drones are made available to the highest bidders, the law enforcement industry in the U.S., and abroad will be at the forefront to exploit this technology to aid in the global war against international drug trafficking.

The U.S. government may be first in line to implement the new technology to gather the intelligence it needs to deter the considerable power the drug cartel’s to control the supply and demand of the world’s most voracious illicit drug market — the USA.

Dr. Jon Dyhr, a biologist from the University of Washington who also studies insect flight, said these flying robots were “impressive feats of engineering.”

“The physics of flight at such small scales is relatively poorly understood which makes designing small flying systems very difficult,” he told BBC News, adding that biological systems provided “critical insights into designing our own artificial flyers.”

The current model of Robo-Fly is tethered to a small, off-board power source, which would currently restrict intelligence gathering because of its link to an off-board power source wire. Inventor Ma says the next step will be to further miniaturize the accompanying aspects of the technology to create a “fully wireless flying robot.”

“It will be a few more years before full [autonomous] integration is possible,” he said.

While optimum insect robotics may not be available in 2015, one fact remains — there is no turning back. Pandora’s Box has been opened and the ever-widening shadow cast by this encroaching Orwellian world is already upon us.

Jarrette Fellows, Jr. is Publisher and Editor of Compton Herald. He attended junior and senior high school in Compton, and is an alumnus of California State University, Los Angeles.

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