If the CIA created a dragonfly drone in the 1970s we can only imagine what they have at their fingertips today!
In the 1970s, the CIA developed a dragonfly drone deemed the “insectothopter” to be used for spying during the Cold War. It could fly for only 60 seconds to deliver a payload. Now documents just recently declassified have revealed details about how the CIA created such an impressive micro-robotic insect controlled by lasers, Popular Mechanics reported.
The documents have been released thanks to the efforts of John Greenwald, founder of the government transparency website The Black Vault. Greenwald put in a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“I’ve learned over the years, the U.S. military and government often will acknowledge something or confirm something exists, and many times that largely satisfies the public’s curiosity,” Greenwald told Popular Mechanics. “However…we often don’t get the full story. So I go after documents never-before-released to tell either more of the story, or the real story.”
The CIA previously tried implanting a cat with a microphone, but the project ended in utter disaster. The agency also tried using birds for their spying prospects under Project Tacana, attaching a camera weighing 1 ¼ ounces to a pigeon. However, results for that haven’t yet been declassified.
The CIA has also explored using retroreflectors, tiny glass beads that reflect laser light back at its source. The CIA was then able to analyze the beam vibration in glass and recreate the vibrations that disturbed it, basically extracting sound from light.
According to the documents, it was the need to develop a smaller spying device that spurred the idea for a dragonfly drone equipped with these tiny glass beads. Don Resier, deputy head of the CIA’s Office of Research and Development, was the man who came up with the alternative. Resier assigned Charles Adkins to lead the project which had the goal of building a device that could fly 200 meters and deliver 0.2 grams of retroreflector beads under stealthy conditions.
To build the device scientists used a tiny fluidic oscillator, a device with no moving parts that is completely driven by gas produced by lithium nitrate crystals. Initial tests showed that the prototype was unable to carry the required 0.2 gram payload so the designers added additional thrusts by venting exhaust backward, much like modern-day jet propulsion. The robot’s “eyes” were the glass retroreflector beads that were to be used for spying on targets.
Next, the CIA needed a way to control a tiny drone without adding extra weight. So CIA scientists utilized the same lasers used for the retroreflectors and a portable laser unit, known as “ROME,” that produced an invisible infrared beam. The laser would then heat a bimetallic strip that would open or close the dragonfly’s exhaust. While effectively restricting the device’s “engine,” another laser would act as a rudder to steer the drone to its desired location.
It has been fifty years since, but advancements in insect robotics has continued full steam ahead, as Daily Mail reported in 2016 when the British military announced their own dragonfly drone. The U.S. hasn’t stopped its own aspirations either and in 2014, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency said it wanted smarter insect drones.
In 2013, the technology they developed at the time was showcased and reported by the Atlantic in a now-deleted video. Then years later in 2017, the Pentagon reported having successfully tested micro-drone swarms. Finally, in 2019 last year it was reported by LA Times that “swarms of small attack drones that confuse and overwhelm antiaircraft defenses could soon become an important part of the modern military arsenal.”
Watch the CIA’s insectothopter below: