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Robotics United States

The CIA's Amazing RC Animals From the 70s 113

Posted by samzenpus
from the too-cool-for-old-school dept.
GameboyRMH writes "If you were impressed at the remote-controlled ornithopters released in recent years, then this will really knock your socks off: In the 1970s, the CIA developed and tested a remote-controlled ornithopter that was disguised as a dragonfly — and at roughly the size of a dragonfly. It was intended to be used as a platform for listening devices. This 'insectothopter' was laser-guided and powered by a tiny gasoline engine built by a watchmaker. While its performance was impressive, difficulty controlling the tiny craft in crosswinds made it impractical, and the idea was scrapped. The article also mentions a robo-squid, and has information on a remote-controlled fish (video) that is also very impressive."

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The CIA's Amazing RC Animals From the 70s

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  • by DrgnDancer (137700) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @01:34PM (#35153034) Homepage

    I have to admit this is really cool. I only wonder what something that small could have carried in the 70's. I mean with today's near microscopic cameras, mics and storage or transmission devices, it would be able to do some half decent surveillance; but 40 years ago even smallish "bugs" were fairly decent sized items. I have trouble believing even the CIA was THAT far ahead of the technology power curve. Maybe a microfilm camera for a few still shots could be fitted onto it; but there wasn't even hardly a concept of digital audio or video, let alone high density storage to hold the data.

    • by sznupi (719324)
      A variant of The Thing [wikipedia.org] could have been small & light enough?... (but I wonder if there simply wasn't much need, for the effort - with so many other methods to plant a bug, between strong arming and bribery / etc., with denying any involvement anyway whatever the case ... maybe such dragonfly wasn't even particularly practical)
      • A gasoline engine the size of a dragonfly, complete with fuel tank? (Knowing the Americans I bet it was a V8, too...)

        And: They scrapped the whole project because it didn't work in cross-winds? They never have calm days in Russia...?

        Nope. The whole thing is probably just more cold-war-era psych-ops to make the Russians think the USA had amazingly advanced secret technology.

        • by sznupi (719324)
          Inexpensive, mass produced, tiny IC engines were available for many years back then, for model usage (check out, say, cox tee dee 010). Such project could certainly afford much more expensive machining... (or maybe not even IC; maybe small & light (not like IC don't have fabulous energy density) CO2 engine sufficient for dozen s of quiet operation)

          And generally, such psych-ops were targeted more typically at US population (NVM that Soviet Union was most likely better informed than the US population a
    • From the second sentence, "It was intended to be used as a platform for listening devices." There you have it, mystery solved.

      • Well yeah, but again, unless your sibling is right about that Russian capacitance listening device being small enough (and to me the picture makes it look way to big, especially the antenna) there weren't listening devices small enough to be carried by something dragonfly sized in the '70s. At least none that I know of. I freely admit that those CIA guys are clever buggers (ha ha I made a pun) and they may have had something that would work, but given that such items are commonplace now I can't see why th

        • I can't see why they wouldn't declassify it too

          If they how you learned what you know then they'll know what else you could have learned and what you couldn't have learned that way.

          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward

            If they how you learned what you know then they'll know what else you could have learned and what you couldn't have learned that way.

            Jesus Christ! Is that a sentence, or a one-time pad?

            • If they know how you learned what you know then they'll know what else you could have learned and what you couldn't have learned that way.

              Jesus Christ! Is that a sentence, or a one-time pad?

              Sorry about dropping that word... Try reading it in Rumselfd's voice [youtube.com]: If they know how you learned what you know

        • there are a lot of conspiracys theorys looking for guys like you to believe them. you can google for them, they will make your day more fun. or do you already believe some of them? ahhh i thought u didn't sorry never mind then :)
        • by Rockoon (1252108)
          ..since you can build an FM transmitter with just a transistor, a few diodes, a couple of capacitors and resistors, some wire, and a condenser mic, you are quite clearly wrong about the size and weight of listening devices possible (and well documented) in the 70's...

          The problem was of course power. A small enough battery wouldnt last very long.. perhaps a few hours..

          A small wireless bug is pretty much step 1 for most amateur electronics hack. Its really quite simple, and even in the 70's there were boo
          • by arivanov (12034)

            And a lot of the parts can be even smaller if you strip the casing with a suitable solvent...

          • by Coren22 (1625475)

            possibly an alternator on the micro gas engine?

            • by Joce640k (829181)

              They'd have to turn the engine off to be able to listen!

              • by Coren22 (1625475)

                I don't know, if they were looking at using it as a listening platform, putting in a micro gas engine seemed rather odd, maybe it lands before turning on the mic...

          • I built a two transistor FM transmitter some time in the late '80s. To test it I left it in my young sisters bed room when my mother was reading her a story. I then got into my car and drove up the road listening to the signal. Two kilometres away I decided it was working a little bit too well so I turned right back and switched it off. I still have it here for emergencies or whatever.

        • by sznupi (719324)
          It looks perfectly within scales required on the picture, especially since its antenna (and a whip one, essentially, not anywhere near the smallest possible) is simply determined by the wavelength to which it responds. A bit shorter wavelength, much shorter (1/4) the antenna.

          And whole device is perfectly close to the shape of a dragonfly, can form its structure. The few acoustic / electronic components - also easily much smaller (The Thing was built at the end of WW2!)

          A lot of stuff isn't declassified
    • Oh, come on, hasn't somebody posted something that obvious yet? In Soviet Russia, You eavesdrop on CIA!!

      • by arivanov (12034)

        Exactly.

        Guess why Americans bulldozed their half-finished embassy in Moscow and rebuilt it from scratch with all-imported materials (even sand, brick and concrete) in the 80-es.

        Why bother with a dragonfly if you can bake everything you need into a brick ya know...

    • by knarf (34928)

      Maybe the intention was to use the laser reflectors on the head of the thing to create a laser microphone [wikipedia.org]? That would require no power whatsoever on the bug - but a line of sight to the laser.

    • I read once that the CIA dropped masses of little listening devices into the Vietnamese jungle as kind of a remote sensing system. I assume they monitored the system with receivers on relatively low flying aircraft.

  • by oodaloop (1229816) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @01:37PM (#35153080)
    The Cocaine Importation Agency also made a cat/listening device. They put a cat under, installed a bug inside of it, and put the antenna in its tail. It was supposed to wander across the street and eavesdrop on the Soviet Embassy, IIRC, and it cost a few million in research. After the surgery, the cat was a little woozy and got hit by a car immediately after release, and the program was scrapped.
    • by owlstead (636356)

      Trying to let a cat do anything other than purr and eat is a waste of time. Until they are a few years old you can entice them to run after things, but that's about it.

      If cats were ever created for any purpose, it's probably to show to people that you are not in control of everything. Doubly so when mackerel is involved.

  • ...we mean in active use and classified.

    • Yes. Future entomologists will wonder what 21st century people meant when they talked about "dragonflies"

  • And of course... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ethanol (176321) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @01:42PM (#35153158)

    Those of us who are a certain age and were geeky enough to read Danny Dunn books know exactly where the CIA got this idea.

    (Luckily Danny was able to destroy Professor Bullfinch's notes so the CIA wouldn't be able to replicate the much better dragonfly he'd invented, so they had to fall back on tiny, impractical gasoline engines instead.)

    • by Tackhead (54550)

      Those of us who are a certain age and were geeky enough to read Danny Dunn books know exactly where the CIA got this idea.

      I may not yet be an Invisible Boy [wikipedia.org], but I've got one hell of a Homework Machine [scholastic.com] these days. (Especially compared to the computers I grew up with, let alone a 1958 "Miniac" that filled an entire house :)

    • Was that what it was? I would have sworn I first read about the remote-controlled dragonfly in a Hardy Boy's novel, in the '70s. But I was just a kid, so it could have easily been some other Boy Genius novel.

    • by istartedi (132515)

      Oh wow... I'd totally forgotten this. Thanks for bringing back the memory. IIRC, the DD dragonfly had sensory feedback too. There was a part where it got into somethat that was too hot, and he had to let go.

    • Those of us who are a certain age and were geeky enough to read Danny Dunn books know exactly where the CIA got this idea.

      (Luckily Danny was able to destroy Professor Bullfinch's notes so the CIA wouldn't be able to replicate the much better dragonfly he'd invented, so they had to fall back on tiny, impractical gasoline engines instead.)

      Boo, you got there first! If I couldn't post first about DD, I wish I had some moderator points so I could upvote. Just hearing the name Danny Dunn makes me feel like I'm ten years old again, curled up at Riverside Library. Ah, memories...

    • I am pretty sure I read that story too, or a similar one. Did it involve telepresence?

    • by Avatar8 (748465)
      Yes, I recall that story, too, and it was the first thing I thought of when reading this article.

      I wonder if there is some connection between the catfish Charlie and the Don Knotts' movie, "The Incredible Mr. Limpet?"

  • What's more likely? That some intelligent hand designed and built these? Or they evolved over hundreds of millions of years?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Hundreds of millions of years?
      Haven't you heard, Bender says: "robots do *everything* faster"

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The TFA was clearly written by some religious nutball who was brainwashed by his parents and can't think for himself. Seriously, who still thinks that we need some "intelligent" entity to explain the existence of robot insects? Even more ridiculous is that they can't think of a better name than "Central Intelligence Agency". Might as well call it the "Intelligent Design Agency". Sheesh. Take a second grade biology course next time. It's obvious these insects evolved their individual mechanical parts over mi

  • by Remus Shepherd (32833) <remus@panix.com> on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @01:46PM (#35153216) Homepage

    When listing robotic and cyborg animals from the cold war era, let's not forget poor Acoustic Kitty [wikipedia.org].

    Some people might say that it was a myth, but one of the people on the project was my boss in the 1990s and he showed me a souvenir. Yes, I have held the skull of Acoustic Kitty in my hands. It had fine channels engraved in the bone so that the microphone wires would not cause bumps under the skin. The detail work was impressive, even more so when you realize that the cat lived through the operation.

    My boss also told me how he was present on Acoustic Kitty's first and only mission. The poor thing was kidnapped from an ambassador's home and put through hellish surgery, including installation of batteries that were destined to kill it after a few months. Then they released it across the street so that it would walk back into the house and begin to spy on its owner. Can you blame it for jumping under the tires of a taxicab? 20 million dollars and months of work, down the drain.

    My old boss is dead now. Sometimes I wonder what happened to AK's skull. It should be placed in the Smithsonian, as a visible reminder that some experiments just should not be done.

    • by Goldsmith (561202)

      There is a museum in Langley, at CIA headquarters, that contains several of the robots discussed in the article. It's possible AK's skull resides there too. They have a website, but there's a lot in that museum off limits to non-CIA people, perhaps they're still embarrassed by Acoustic Kitty.

      • It's possible his estate gave the skull back to the CIA. All I know that in 1996 he kept the skull in his living room on a nice wooden stand.

    • Acoustic Kitty reminds me of the extremely creepy head transplant experiments [wikipedia.org] done in the Soviet Union in the 1960's, as detailed in Mary Roach's book "Stiff" and another book called "Elephants On Acid". The latter includes pictures of an obviously functional, conscious small dog head sticking off the shoulder/neck of a larger dog, who is also obviously conscious. Really unsettling, especially when one considers that if we *really* needed to keep someone alive for what they had in their brains, we could,
      • if we *really* needed to keep someone alive for what they had in their brains, we could, even if they were mostly missing a body.

        Not in evidence. The fact that the dog and the body were animate in no way demonstrates that if you did it with a human they'd be in any fashion rational or coherent.

        • if we *really* needed to keep someone alive for what they had in their brains, we could, even if they were mostly missing a body.

          Not in evidence. The fact that the dog and the body were animate in no way demonstrates that if you did it with a human they'd be in any fashion rational or coherent.

          Maybe not but it'd be interesting to try, don't you think? How about taking the brain out entirely and feeding it artificial nutrients? I reckon you could keep it alive on a few watts.

  • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @01:47PM (#35153224)

    I remember back in the 70's there was a scandal about the CIA storing deadly Hawaiian shellfish toxin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKNAOMI [wikipedia.org] . A drop of that stuff can kill a human, really fast. Now, imagine this dragonfly armed with some of that. Even "Q" from James Bond would stand up and applaud.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Who cares about shellfish? Ricin is one of the world's most deadly poisons and you make it from beans.

  • Please, don't let the Japanese hear about this...

    (although Rule 34 suggests it is far too late)

  • DARPA is more or less trying this again [cnet.com]. With better results [youtube.com].

  • by GameboyRMH (1153867) <gameboyrmh AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @01:57PM (#35153340) Journal

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciagov/ [flickr.com]

    I included the link in my submission but it was edited out, this is actually the original source of the information. Lots more cool spy gadgets to see in the above link.

  • by metrometro (1092237) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @02:06PM (#35153392)

    "Out in the crowd, Bernard Crane saw them, too. "I'd never seen anything like it in my life," the Washington lawyer said. "They were large for dragonflies. I thought, 'Is that mechanical, or is that alive?' That is just one of the questions hovering over a handful of similar sightings at political events in Washington and New York. Some suspect the insectlike drones are high-tech surveillance tools, perhaps deployed by the Department of Homeland Security. "

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/08/AR2007100801434.html [washingtonpost.com]

    Nothing definitive in the story, but reasonably well reported eyewitness accounts.

    • I remember reading something like that a few years ago, but it could have been a Wowwee Flytech Dragonfly:

      http://www.wowwee.com/en/support/flytech-dragonfly [wowwee.com]

      I have one myself. The wingspan is a bit over a foot and they make loud squeaky noises when they fly, but that could have been drowned out in a protest.

    • by radtea (464814)

      .Some suspect the insectlike drones are high-tech surveillance tools, perhaps deployed by the Department of Homeland Security. "

      I'm just glad they aren't using this tech for anything that would actually make anyone more secure, like improving crop yields, delivery of clean water, improving waste management, and so on. I mean, can you imagine what would happen if technology like this was deployed in any economically useful way!? It's a good thing it's being carefully restricted to the deadweight loss of the security-industrial complex!

      • by brkello (642429)

        How would you know it didn't? There are tons of example of military/intelligence technology eventually making it in to consumer products that we use every day now. They have a problem they are trying to solve so they focus on that. As a side benefit, we get to use it for a different purpose years later if they were good ideas.

  • Seeing this article made me think of the robotic/cyborg "guardian" animals in the Dark Tower series. I wonder if this cold war stuff inspired that part of King's story?

  • Why are we hearing about one of the coolest pieces of technology developed in the last 30 years in a tabloidesque news bulletin? Another area that could benefit from wikileaks.
  • Circa 1970 we got one of the first portable lasers in our physics lab. It weighed about 6 pounds. Prior to that the only lasers we had were built on lab benches. So the part about it being laser-controlled I seriously doubt.
  • The article is a spoiler regarding the plot of Danny Dunn Invisible Boy
  • It seems like the "tiny gasoline engine" they used must have been a cousin to old Cox glow-plug engines that I used to fly on model airplanes. Those things howled like banshees.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Well, it was certainly a two-stroke, because they were chasing maximum power output. And it almost certainly had compression ignition with a hot spot, because there's no room for a magneto in there, is there? And even if you had one you'd kill your spark electrode in short order. Then again, if they only have to last for a minute or two that might be OK. Today I would probably try to run them on rocket fuel being mixed in a closed chamber.

  • by SoundGuyNoise (864550) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @08:26PM (#35157428) Homepage
    I'm imagining it with a little tiny string to start it like a lawnmower.

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