Beware of intelligent insects – they are spying on you!

Miniature insect spy drones mimic the appearance and flight patterns of winged insects and to the naked eye look just like the real thing.

Next time a pesky insect lands on you take a close look at it before you swat it away because you could be in for a nasty surprise.

What might appear to be a mosquito or something similar could, in fact, be a miniature spy drone which is snooping on you and being controlled by someone thousands of kilometres away.

No, this isn’t the stuff of science fiction but something which is just around the corner.

And there is "evidence" New Zealand may have already pioneered insect espionage.

Auckland-based strategic analyst Paul Buchanan says the race is on between the USA and Russia to develop the first micro aerial vehicle (MAV).

They are also known as insect spy drones because they mimic the appearance and flight patterns of winged insects and to the naked eye look just like the real thing.

Already used in world hotspots
The much bigger brothers of such drones, which resemble small aircraft, are already deployed in hotspots around the world such as Afghanistan.

Known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) they are primarily used to gather intelligence on enemy activity on the ground as well as carrying out precision strikes against insurgents, deploying bombs or missiles.

They can fly above a battle zone for up to 14 hours beaming high-definition images to soldiers on the ground.

Miniscule insect spy drones, on the other hand, have a variety of other applications.

Equipped with a camera and a microphone they can land on you, take samples of your DNA or leave tracking nanotechnology on your skin, all the while being controlled by someone half a world away.

In the US there are claims the federal government has been covertly using such drones for several years, employing them to monitor anti-war protests and the like.

In 2007 university student Vanessa Alarcon, who was involved in an anti-war rally, told the Washington Post:

“I look up and I’m like, ‘what the hell is that?’

“They looked like dragonflies or little helicopters, but I mean, those are not insects.”

Lawyer Bernard Crane, who was at the same event, reportedly said he had “never seen anything like it” in his life.

“They were large for dragonflies and I thought, 'is that mechanical or is that alive?'”

Formidable technical obstacles

Dr Buchanan told NBR ONLINE insect drones have been an ambition of warfare specialists for decades, if not centuries.

“The work on miniaturisation began decades ago during the Cold War, both in the USA and USSR, and to a lesser extent the UK and China.

“The idea then and now was to have an undetectable and easily expendable weapons delivery or intelligence collection system.”

Dr Buchanan says there were formidable technical obstacles to their development until advances in nanotechnology in the 1990s.

“Nano technologies in particular have seen an increase in research on miniaturised UAVs, something that is not exclusive to government scientific agencies, but which also has sparked significant private sector involvement.

“That is because beyond the military, security and intelligence applications of miniaturised UAVs, the commercial applications of such platforms are potentially game changing.

“Within a few short years the world will be divided into those who have them and those who do not, with the advantage in a wide range of human endeavour going to the former,” he says.

New Zealand keen to use them

For its part, New Zealand has not been slow to embrace UAVs, with the defence force, police and private sector very much aware of their huge potential.

The army has already trialled a number of UAVs and appears keen to get its hands on some fairly sophisticated ones in the years ahead.

In the meantime it is trying out a hand-held UAV which is capable of taking high-quality video and transmitting it live.

The army says the UAV, which is known as Kahu, has become invaluable in helping protect soldiers on the ground and gaining intelligence in the battle area.

The police are also evaluating the use of drones as a cheaper alternative to helicopters and aircraft.

They would most likely be used for traffic management, search and rescue or mapping crime scenes.

Others who are already using them include film-makers, aerial photographers and conservationists.

Alarm bells ringing here

However, their increasing popularity here is ringing alarm bells in some quarters.

The Airline Pilots Association believes they pose a risk to commercial aircraft, people and property.

It says New Zealand is “not match ready” and there is a need for specific safety and operational standards to apply to them.

Another major concern is privacy, with Privacy Commissoner Marie Shroff saying it’s time to think about regulating their use “before they become a problem”.

“While drones can be beneficial – for instance, to see into places where it’s not safe for people to go, as happened with Christchurch Cathedral, or for research – it’s their wider uses that potentially raise concerns.

“They have the potential to be seriously intrusive,” she says.

All of which could become a major issue as there are predictions the UAV industry could be worth $89 billion by 2020.

So, next time a mosquito takes a liking to your anatomy don’t bother reaching for the insect repellent.

It might make more sense to summon assistance from a SWAT team.

rvaughan@nbr.co.nz

Footnote by Jock Anderson

In the late 1990's, co-publisher of the now-defunct Independent business paper, the late Warren Berryman, was convinced rivals were sabotaging his operation.

On one occasion an alcohol-fueled Mr Berryman conducted a top level witch-hunt to find out what caused a face-contorting smudge to appear on a photo in the paper.

An inspection by Mr Berryman and myself of the page separations retrieved from the printer revealed the culprit to be a tiny squashed winged insect.

Beside himself with rage - and resorting to language too agrarian for a respectable website - Mr Berryman was convinced the wee mite belonged to a squadron of kamikaze mozzies, specially trained by a rival business publisher (name withheld by request) which had flown to the printery to destroy his paper's standing and force it out of business.

Well, that's what he told me...

janderson@nbr.co.nz

 

 

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