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Black Hornets, Nano Bugs and Spy Flies

Eye spy with my little fly!

For now, the only way to be invisible is to be exceedingly small or very camouflaged.  The dream of every espionage agent has always been the ability to send an invisible spy into just about any environment and then just watch, listen, and learn. In the 1970’s the CIA tried to develop a tiny spy drone called the ‘Insectothopter’.  Trials were initially highly successful but the technology for controlling the flight system just was available yet.  Fast forward 50 years and it now turns out that this technology already exists, and it adds a whole new meaning to the expression ‘bugging the opposition’!

CIA Dragonfly Insectothopter 1970

CIA Dragonfly Insectothopter 1970 (WMC Image Credit: CIA USA)

Small is Beautiful

Flying drones started off big because the surveillance tech and power sources they had to carry were big too.  As this technology became evermore miniaturised so could the drones.  Now it appears that a Harvard professor has developed possibly the smallest drone we know about: “Weighing only 60 milligrams, with a wingspan of 3cm, this micro-bot’s movements are based on those of an actual fly according to MIT Technology Review Magazine.

According to MIT the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is providing the funds for   Professor Wood’s research in the belief that it can evolve into advanced microbots that can be used for stealth surveillance either on the battlefield or in urban environments.

But … that was in 2007 and a lot of time has already passed since then …

In April 2020 the BBC reported that companies such as Animal Dynamics were working on a top-secret development programme known as ‘Project Skeeter’.  The goal – to create drones base entirely on the motion-science of birds and insects.

The Black Hornet – A Microdrone With a Potentially Lethal Sting

Originally developed by Prox Dynamics AS of Norway and now available from FLIR, the black hornet is an Airborne Personal Reconnaissance System (PRS / UAV) specifically made for infantry soldiers. The objective of the device is to provide immediate covert situational awareness.  According to FLIR, the pocket-sized Black Hornet is exceptionally lightweight, incredibly quiet, and has an operational flight duration of up to 25 minutes.  It can transmit live video and high-definition images back to the operator.  It can also be landed in places of concealment where it can transmit video for longer than its specified flight time.  Only qualified organisations are permitted to purchase this technology.

Black Hornet Micro Drone 2014

Black Hornet Micro Drone 2014 (SSPL)

The Black Hornet has been used in combat by both the United States and United Kingdom armed forces.  As of 2015, the Black Hornet had been upgraded to include night vision and a ‘hardened’ data transmission range of over one mile.  More than 3,000 units have been manufactured and deployed. The average cost of a Black Hornet is between $80,000 and $160,000.

BAE Nano – The Bug

“In collaboration with UAVTEK, BAE has developed a nano “Bug” drone and delivered the first 30 units to the British Army, which has put it through its paces as part of a trial.

The Bug is a nano-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) weighing 196g – similar to the weight of a smartphone – with 40-minute battery life and a 2km range. It boasts a stealthy low visual profile and the ability to fly even in strong winds of more than 50mph. It was the only nano-UAV able to cope with the uncompromising weather during a recent Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE) event hosted by the Ministry of Defence’s Future Capability Group.” (BAE Press Release 2021)

Cyborg Dragonflies

According to Defence IQ, the Massachusetts-based company, the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory is developing a novel approach to reconnaissance nano-bots by integrating cutting edge technology with actual living insects.  The DragonflEye concept involves the development of a ‘backpack’ unit that can be fitted to a dragonfly and managed through integrated guidance, energy, and navigation techniques.  The micro ‘backpack’ is attached to the dragonfly and uses optogenetics to stimulate the 16 specific neurons that effectively control the flight response in dragonflies.  The technology is powered by a miniature solar panel, but the Dragonfly hunts its own food eliminating the short-term need to recharge and full mechanical device and thus significantly extending the range and performance of the device.

Blue Dragonfly Spy Cyborg 2025

Blue Dragonfly Spy Cyborg 2025 (SSPL)

Although the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory have not suggested this, a natural progression of this technology would be to integrate the manmade technology directly into an insect to create a true cyborg.

Spy Fly

There was another article in MIT Technology Review published in 2015 and this one has clues to suggest that the Spy Fly had advance quite a lot over the years.  To quote from the article:

“A tiny artificial eye inspired by the vision systems of insects could help small flying drones navigate their surroundings well enough to avoid collisions while buzzing around in confined, cluttered spaces—a key step in making these small autonomous flying vehicles practical.”

It would be fair to say that if the engineers and scientists are now concentrating on visual and navigation systems in 2015 then surely, they must have already perfected the flight and primary surveillance systems.

Spy Fly Technology

Spy Fly Technology in Development 2021

According to the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory website (2016):

“Our research focuses on mechanics, materials, design, and manufacturing for novel robots. This includes robotics at unique size scales – Microrobotics – and robots that depart from conventional rigid morphologies – soft robotics. Examples include robotic insects … “

“… highly dynamic robots, and mechanical intelligence (I.e., the ability to alleviate controller complexity by embedding feedback mechanisms in mechanical systems).”

Now the big question is this:  Did they succeed in the Fly Spy Project or not?

Of extreme interest is the fact that in 2012 the crowd funding website INDIEGOGO launched an appeal for the funding of a Robot Dragonfly – Micro Aerial Vehicle – described as a palm-sized robot that can fly like a bird and hover like an insect.  According to the website some $1,140,975 USD was raised by 3,203 backers.

Over the past years there have been regular reports on the internet from people claiming to have seen bizarre metallic insects hovering near to protest demonstrations or other public gatherings.

Given how much research is taking place, and the time that has passed since these projects were first started, it is probably fair to say that Spy Fly almost certainly exists.  Given how much money has been invested by DARPA and other organisations a one would reasonably expect results by now.

A type of Spy Fly is actually mentioned by Dan Brown (author of the Da Vinci Code) in one of his early novels entitled Deception Point and published in 2001 so the idea is anything but new.

It really does seem if the time has come to start looking very closely at flies that might be sitting quietly in the corner of the room – particularly if you’re going to be sharing secrets.  A word of warning though – be very careful if you suspect a Spy Fly and decide you’re going to try and catch one.  They will almost certainly have the ability to self-destruct into nothing more than a whiff of metallic vapour and a tiny glass lens possibly taking your fingers with them.

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