Millions of Domino beetles, which roam the forests of south India, have caught the fancy of Indian defence scientists. No, it is not ‘EW’ or entomological warfare which is on their minds. They are set to fuse two realms which are as diverse as biology and nano-engineering, in order to turn these insects into Cyborgs or Cybernetic Organisms, which are different from bio-robots but could be of enormous help during military and civilian operations. A swarm of these beetles could discern the precise location of terrorists holed up inside a building and guide special forces to zero in on them through short bursts of signals.
They could provide critical inputs during recon missions. And during natural calamities, they could help local authorities even those at the taluk level rescue survivors in the rubble. And just how do they plan to turn this inch-and-a-half beetle into an intelligence-gathering entity? Add Micro-Electro-Mechanical-Systems or MEMS as a backpack on each of these insects and guide them through signals sent down their nerves!
Not really, says Lt Gen (Dr) Velacheri Jagadesan Sundaram, who piloted the National Programme on Micro Air Vehicles (NPMICAV) — a joint initiative of the DRDO and Department of Science & Technology. “We will put a new team together to work on multidisciplinary areas such as Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI), vision-based control, biosensors and insect cyborgs. We can get inputs from biologists, entomologists, neurologists as well as scientists in agriculture, forestry, bio-engineering, bio-technology and nano-engineering to develop them,” he adds.
R&D labs and private enterprises have been identified by the Special Interest Group for Micro Air vehicles (SIGMA) of Aeronautics Research and Development Board (AR&DB), which has been established to promote the indigenous development of Micro-Nano Air Vehicles and cyborgs. This octogenarian, who as project director of Prithvi missiles was part of the inner circle of the late President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam during the latter’s stint as Director General of DRDO, spoke of significant strides in the development of Micro Unmanned Air Vehicles and the entry of private enterprises such as ideaForge Technology Pvt Ltd of Mumbai (founded by the alumni of IIT, Bombay), and D. C. Enterprises, Bengaluru.
And it was a moment of quiet pride for ideaForge when it bagged the contract for supply of one-metre span Mini Air Vehicles to the Indian Army, beating foreign firms to a global tender. Besides, ideaForge and DRDO have developed and marketed NETRA, a portable unmanned air vehicle (quadcopter form) with both day and night cameras and capability to provide real-time video of on-ground vehicle and human movement from a height of 400 meters.
Such portable Mini Unmanned Air Vehicles —some could even pass off as birds because of their flapping wings — are wowing interested parties abroad as well. At an International Search and Rescue conference held in Kuala Lumpur in early July this year, D.C. Enterprises, (Bengaluru), the father and son team of N. Chandrashekhar and Uttam Chandrashekhar, received a slew of enquiries after they presented a paper, Drones for Search and Rescue.
Among the wide range of MAVs developed by this firm are two miniature drones which won a national competition for flying like a bird through an arch, locate a make-shift ammunitions dump, identify text and a signboard, enter a make-shift chemical laboratory, distinguish between terrorists and hostages and fly back to the starting point. With attacks by terrorists at Uri and Pathankot, or the one in Mumbai in 2008, DRDO and these private enterprises could have requests pouring in from the security forces for Micro and Mini Air Vehicles and Cyborgs too.