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Creatures Feature Possible Defense Applications

By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 28, 1999 – This article also appears in illustrated form on the Defenselink News Web site www.defenselink.mil/specials/bees/index.html.

The recent buzz about honeybees as flying mine detectors is just part of the story about how the Pentagon is trying to enlist diverse members of the zoological kingdom for military applications.

[For more information on DoD's bee research, see the American Forces Press Service story "Researchers Abuzz About Land Mine Detecting Bees." ]

Add flies, beetles, lobsters and even geckos, and the full range of species being studied starts to become clear. Add creative thinking and technology and the range of possible defense-related applications starts to boggle the mind.

All the above are part of three-year study sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The purpose of the study is not only to determine capabilities within the zoological kingdom, but to see if they can be replicated in ways beneficial to DoD, according to Alan Rudolph, program manager in DARPA's Defense Sciences Office.

The study, known as the "Controlled Biological and Biomimetic Systems" project, studies organisms from three different perspectives.

First, as with the bees and moths, the program examines whether an organism, without the aid of technology, can be trained and used in direct support of a defense need such as locating mines. Rudolph said this simply takes advantage of existing biosystems to perform tasks.

The second perspective involves what Rudolph called "biohybrids." This involves technologically boosting an organism's natural abilities. Attaching radio tracking tags to mine-detecting honeybees is an example of this. In this case, the tags increase the bees' abilities to provide timely and accurate information.

Biomimetics is the stuff of science fiction. This third perspective involves creating a mechanical replicant that can perform the same task as the organic original. That's where the flies, beetles, lobsters and lizards come into play.

In one project funded by DARPA, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have been studying the aerodynamic abilities of flies, which can take off backward, fly sideways and land upside down.

"For years, this has sort of confounded engineers," Rudolph said. "They didn't understand the mechanics. A lot of the biomimetics activity of the program looks at organisms and their locomotion and navigation abilities, and then searches for strategies to turn those abilities into hardware."

Rudolph said scientists might be able to use what they learn about flies to produce micro air surveillance vehicles that can actually flap their wings. Most fixed- wing vehicles can only get down to a certain size before their aerodynamics become unstable, he said. A vehicle that could flap its wings and maneuver in a variety of situations would provide much greater possibilities and capabilities.

Beetles are being studied for their sensing capabilities.

"The beetle seeks out burnt bark from forest fires to lay its eggs," Rudolph said. "And the beetle can sense a forest fire from as far as 50 to 70 kilometers out. So how does it do that? It turns out it uses a combination of sensors, some looking for the smoke, and some looking for the infrared emission of the forest fire. So understanding the beetles' unique organs and trying to mimic them may actually help us build more sensitive and discriminating devices to detect chemical or infrared emissions."

In a project at Northeastern University in Boston, researchers are studying the lobster's locomotive skills to see if devices could be built to help find mines that have been placed in surf areas. Rudolph said the research has centered on how lobsters maneuver about in the often rocky, turbulent surf.

"It turns out lobsters actually ski around the area," Rudolph explained. "They have a way of controlling their legs and posture so they basically avoid or maneuver around all the obstacles. They don't get tumbled against rocks or get tossed about. So mimicking that ability in a piece of hardware is what the researchers at Northeastern are looking at."

Anyone who has ever been in the tropics is likely familiar with the innocent reptiles known as geckos. The small lizards effortlessly climb walls and walk across ceilings. It's these abilities researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have been studying in a robotics program.

"Researchers have been studying the properties of geckos that enable them to do that," Rudolph said. It turns out geckos have unique feet that are dry, yet still able to stick to surfaces. As they move up a wall, he said, geckos actually peel their feet from the surface and stick them back on.

Rudolph said engineers at Berkeley have built a small wall- climbing robotic gecko mimic, but it hasn't been tested for defense purposes yet. "It has the potential for a variety of defense applications," he said. "Maybe you'd like to have it climb a wall or building and do surveillance or other activities. It can go places where people can't."

He said the robotics aspect of the research program is part of a more general military interest in legged robots. Most robots today move on wheels and therefore have limited mobility, he said.

"Legged robotics will likely eventually dominate because they have a greater potential to deal with obstacles," Rudolph said. "Legged robots are probably the next generation -- if we can figure out how to build them."

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