Scientist at the University of Maryland are studying insects and birds in an attempt to develop robots which behave like winged animals, including the ability to fly. The project is working toward the goal of protecting troops in battle, by creating robotic scouts which can survey hostile areas and warn troops of potential danger.
The researchers have turned to natural biology as an inspiration, and have focused on the behavior of insects, birds and other flying animals to help create the prototype for the flying robot. Sean Humbert of the University of Maryland is leading up the project. The research is being funded by the U. S. Army research laboratory, which has reportedly invested $12 million in the program.
At present the main focus of the program is to study how insects move, fly and navigate through unfamiliar territory. Because flying insects are actually very efficient organisms, the researchers hope to emulate their behavior in machines, using advanced sensors that give the robot’s software “brain” immediate feedback, allowing it to avoid obstacles with agility similar to that of flying insects.
The US military has had a great deal of success so far with robotic, unmanned vehicles, such as the drone aircraft currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. But not everyone is convinced that these “defensive” robotic vehicles will only be used for defense.
Critics point out that robotic agents, such as the insect based robots currently being developed at the University of Maryland, can also be used in aggressive or offensive positions. And as the technology improves, researchers are able to make the robots smaller and smaller. Some speculate that it won’t be long until they develop tiny robotic insects no larger than a common housefly.
Obviously, a robot agent of this size could be very useful to the military, and would have the ability to infiltrate enemy territory unnoticed. But there is also concern that such tiny robotic soldiers could be used to deliver chemical, biological or even electromagnetic weapons, doing great damage to the enemy without them even being aware of its presence.
As researchers get closer and closer to designing robots that are inspired by the animal kingdom, we can only hope that the technology is monitored closely and used only for ethical means. Tiny multi-sensor robots, should they fall into the wrong hands, could be extremely dangerous. The robotic insects could infiltrate nuclear facilities, photograph top-secret military information, and even be used in industrial espionage.
But the tiny robots won’t be invincible by any means. Just like the real insects they are emulating, the Achilles’ heel for these tiny robotic agents could be as simple as a household flyswatter.