A swarm of robotic insects is being developed for the military to hunt down enemy fighters in buildings and caves, carry mini bombs and identify chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.
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They look as though they have crawled from the set of a science fiction film, but the bugs are based on the design and size of real insects, including spiders and dragonflies.
They are to be fitted with cameras, as well as sensors to identify different types of weapon, and can be kitted out with a small payload of explosives.
The spider model is similar to that featured in the 2002 sci-fi film, Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, in which robot insects are sent into a building by police to search for a suspect.
The robots are being developed for use by the American military and its allies, including the British Army, by BAE Systems.
Prototypes small enough to sit on a fingertip have already been created, including a fly that weighs less than an ounce and has a wingspan of 1.18in.
Lightweight carbon joints allow the robot to mimic precisely the movements of a real fly, with wings that beat 110 times a second.
Steve Scalera, programme manager for the project, said: "We’re trying to harness nature’s designs. Evolution has done a fabulous job of producing extremely efficient and capable systems.
"We’re building a collection of miniature robots that can explore complex terrain we wouldn’t normally be able to approach because it is too dangerous.
"This might mean exploring buildings or caves looking for people inside, searching for dangerous items like munitions, chemical, biological or nuclear substances that might be there."
The battery-powered insects will not be remotely-controlled by soldiers, but will be fitted with "artificial intelligence" software that lets them operate autonomously, and in teams.
Mr Scalera added: "We don't want to overburden soldiers on the battlefield. These devices can find their own way and work together in teams, much like groups of ants or bees do. But they work for the soldiers, feeding them information.
"At the soldier level, on the battlefield, we envisage these pieces of equipment to be ubiquitous. We want to actually put them in the hands of soldiers, who may have a pocketful of them.
"They can then use them at a moment’s notice, to provide additional awareness and to extend the soldier’s senses and reach, perhaps to look over a wall or search a building, before breaching it. They will enable us to do things that we currently just can’t do. They will save lives.”
The creators also envisage civilian uses for the insects, such as search-and-rescue operations, following building or mine collapses.
The Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (Mast) project is being led by BAE Systems and involves scientists at universities across America.
It has been funded by a £19 million grant to BAE by the US Army Research Laboratory for use by America and Britain. Dr Joseph Mait, of the laboratory, said: "Robotic platforms provide operational capabilities that would otherwise be costly, impossible, or deadly to achieve."
Prof Ismet Gursul, who has been studying insect flight for use in robotics at the University of Bath, said: "This might seem like science fiction, but it is a process of natural evolution for robots. "Engineers are making robots smaller and smaller, because it saves on costs and allows you to make more."
Fausto Intilla - www.oloscience.com