Friday, August 10, 2007

The cardinal rules of acronymy

I have been fond of Daniel Engber's Explainer feature at Slate for a long time, but he has now outdone himself with this report on the Pentagon's DARPATech conference. Engber thinks robots are played out (he doesn't see why we need wall-climbing lizards), but there are some interesting semi-prosthetic applications:
Animal locomotion does inspire one of my favorite devices—the simple and amazing PowerSwim. Worn over the lower legs of divers, the contraption uses a pair of oscillating fins connected by a spring to emulate the undulating movements of marine mammals. Video clips projected on a huge overhead screen show something that works a bit like an underwater bicycle: The swimmer propels himself forward by wiggling his legs back and forth at the knees. At a cost of less than $500, the PowerSwim seems destined for immediate placement in Skymall.

I'm so enchanted by the PowerSwim that I almost miss the insect cyborgs tucked away in the corner. The latest innovation from DARPA's Office of Creepy Technologies comes from Dr. Amit Lal, who wants to use controllable flying insects for surveillance missions. So far, his teams of engineers have managed to implant electrodes into moths during the pupa stage of early development, with minimal tissue damage. Video monitors show the insects as fully grown adults that can be induced to flap their wings in any direction. They're also working on a way to use the moth's living body—its movements and metabolism—as a power source for the implant's electronics.
(Thanks to Nico for the link.)

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