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Pentagon Studies Insects and Lobsters - 2002-05-22

Bombers, battleships, bullets and bayonets - these are tools of war. But so too, it seems, are bees and beetles, lizards, lobsters and more.

Military research is not all about futuristic and ultra high-tech weapons like death beams and ray guns. Researchers working for the Pentagon have also been closely studying living organisms.

Jan Walker is spokeswoman for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "We're interested in investigating biological organisms because they have evolved over many, many years to be particularly good at surviving in the environment," she said. "They have to be able to find food, they have to be able to find a mate, they have to know what is going on in their environment so they can avoid predators and we hope to learn from some of those strategies that Mother Nature has developed."

Take, for example, the beetle. Defense researchers hope to learn from one particular kind, how to make improved, lower-cost infrared, heat-seeking sensors for missiles.

Again, DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. "Most of our sensors require cryogenic cooling which is expensive and bulky and our uncooled sensors are not nearly as sensitive as the beetle's," she said. "We need to try to understand how their sensors work so we [can] perhaps reproduce those in a mechanical, engineered system."

Researchers are also conducting tests with honey bees in hopes they can detect explosives - perhaps one day becoming a much smaller counterpart to the now-familiar bomb-sniffing dogs seen at airports.

Spokeswoman Walker says scientists have trained bees to associate a food source they like with an explosive. She says when the food is taken away, the bees still are attracted to the bomb. "We've been doing experiments to first of all figure out if we can train them, to figure out how long that training lasts once you take away the food source and to see whether the kinds of reactions that we get can be counted on, can be measured, to see if they would have any military utility," said DARPA spokeswoman.

Ms. Walker says wasps are also being studied as possible explosives detectors.

But other non-insect species are also the subject of research projects - even the common lizard known as the gecko. "If you think about geckos, what do they do? They climb up walls," she said. "How do they stick to the wall? How do they climb up the wall? So we were doing some studies to figure out the means by which the gecko adheres to the wall. We've had some very interesting results and we will continue looking at that to see if we can use some similar type of idea for perhaps a robot so that we can develop robots that can climb up walls."

DARPA has also funded research to determine precisely how the legs of a lobster work as it maneuvers along a rocky shoreline, defying waves and tides - a project aimed at creating another kind of robot of special interest to the Navy.

The entire research program is known as CBS - for controlled biological systems. It is a defensive, not offensive program. Spokeswoman Walker says it is all part of the Pentagon's effort to make soldiering safer for the soldier.