Mike the Mad Biologist

…they’re after you? Are we being spied upon by bug-like robots? There have been three independent sightings according to the Washington Post:

Vanessa Alarcon saw them while working at an antiwar rally in Lafayette Square last month.

“I heard someone say, ‘Oh my god, look at those,’ ” the college senior from New York recalled. “I look up and I’m like, ‘What the hell is that?’ They looked kind of like dragonflies or little helicopters. But I mean, those are not insects.”

Out in the crowd, Bernard Crane saw them, too.

“I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” the Washington lawyer said. “They were large for dragonflies. I thought, ‘Is that mechanical, or is that alive?’ ”

That is just one of the questions hovering over a handful of similar sightings at political events in Washington and New York. Some suspect the insectlike drones are high-tech surveillance tools, perhaps deployed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Others think they are, well, dragonflies — an ancient order of insects that even biologists concede look about as robotic as a living creature can look.

No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones. But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying….

The CIA was among the earliest to tackle the problem. The “insectothopter,” developed by the agency’s Office of Research and Development 30 years ago, looked just like a dragonfly and contained a tiny gasoline engine to make the four wings flap. It flew but was ultimately declared a failure because it could not handle crosswinds.

Agency spokesman George Little said he could not talk about what the CIA may have done since then. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service also declined to discuss the topic.

Only the FBI offered a declarative denial. “We don’t have anything like that,” a spokesman said.

The Defense Department is trying, though.

There are, however, cybermoths:

In one approach, researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are inserting computer chips into moth pupae — the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult — and hatching them into healthy “cyborg moths.”

The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project aims to create literal shutterbugs — camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip so that wranglers can control their activities. DARPA researchers are also raising cyborg beetles with power for various instruments to be generated by their muscles.

“You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic ‘Lord of the Rings’ used a moth to call in air support,” DARPA program manager Amit Lal said at a symposium in August. Today, he said, “this science fiction vision is within the realm of reality.”

OK, back to the dragonflies:

They probably saw dragonflies, said Jerry Louton, an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Washington is home to some large, spectacularly adorned dragonflies that “can knock your socks off,” he said.

At the same time, he added, some details do not make sense. Three people at the D.C. event independently described a row of spheres, the size of small berries, attached along the tails of the big dragonflies — an accoutrement that Louton could not explain. And all reported seeing at least three maneuvering in unison.

“Dragonflies never fly in a pack,” he said.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice said her group is investigating witness reports and has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with several federal agencies. If such devices are being used to spy on political activists, she said, “it would be a significant violation of people’s civil rights.”

This sounds crazy, but, then again, in light of the allegations that the Bush Administration was engaged in illegal surveillance before Sept. 11, 2001, I don’t know what to think. When you have an administration that declares it manufactures its own reality, how do you know when you have gone crazy?

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Comments

  1. #1 Homie Bear
    October 15, 2007

    Wow, crazy. I can’t wait to see some photos.

  2. #2 Mark Dow
    October 15, 2007

    Dragonflies may not “fly in packs”, but I have witnesses large groups flying in unison. Here’s a project that documents this behavior:
    http://www.ent.orst.edu/ore_dfly/guides.htm

  3. #3 Homie Bear
    October 15, 2007

    If I saw THIS dragonfly I might think it was a robot:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/7537146@N06/1381741312/in/photostream/

  4. #4 Michael Schmidt
    October 15, 2007

    Obviously, activists should go to rallys with long-handled butterfly nets. That would solve the identification problem. Or it might just work to keep the insects–or the CIA–at a greater distance.

  5. #5 Joshua
    October 15, 2007

    I’m going to make tinfoil hats with built-in citronella candle holders. I’ll make a killing!

  6. #6 NoAstronomer
    October 15, 2007

    Note the last sentence of that article. Just because you haven’t seen any large dragonfly like things flying around doesn’t mean they’re not watching you.

    Personally I think that, given all the other possible surveillance technologies around, it would be silly to risk exposing this capability on a fairly innocuous target.