John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The 1-gram listening device that flew like a dragonfly never really got off the ground.
Don't be surprised if Time's Person of the Year for 2013 is a drone: The weirdly smooth-bodied aircraft are popping up everywhere these days, whether it be in U.S. military strikes, law-enforcement surveillance or the world of urban fashion (peep this drone-proof hoodie).
But it's worth noting that the idea of drones was circulating for a long time before the machines reached their modern-age supremacy. The Austrians used unmanned balloons in the 1840s to drop bombs on Venice; shortly after the end of WWII, the Americans relied on pilotless bombers to collect data inside a radioactive mushroom cloud above Bikini Atoll.
The history of drones took an especially weird turn in the 1970s when the CIA began fiddling around with a prototype for an eavesdropping robot called the Insectothopter. The device was initially meant to mimic a bumblebee. However, the body shape of that particular insect proved cumbersome, so the agency took the advice of an entomologist and switched to a realistic-looking dragonfly 'bot. The mini-UAV weighed just 1 gram, was guided by laser and had an onboard audio sensor that could pick up clandestine conversations like a fly (well, big ol' swamp insect) on the wall. You can just imagine the distress a frog might feel upon swallowing the gas-powered critter.
As progressive as it was, the Insectothopter never saw active duty (or so the CIA says) due to its featherweight construction – the slightest breeze would send it whirring into a wall. But the spooks felt obliged to include the invention in an agency museum show in 2003, writing:
Many treasures can be found among the unclassified items on display at the CIA Museum. The insectothopter is one of the favorite artifacts on exhibit. It was developed as a listening device that would be flown to the vicinity of its target. In other words, insectothopter could be thought of as a bug that was a bug. Although it was never used operationally, it was first in flight for an insect-sized machine.
"The insectothopter confirms to a lot of people the creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that CIA uses to create technology firsts," Hiley said. "That was created more than 30 years ago. Imagine what capabilities we must have now."
Watch the wee Insectothopter spread its artificial wings in this CIA video:
Top image courtesy of CIA's News & Information.