Technothriller threat of the week: insect-borne bioterrorism!

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2010

Via Bruce Schneier, still tirelessly cataloguing the monetization and manipulation of movie-plot threats: a workshop to “address the threat of insect-based terrorism”.

How real is the threat? Many of the world’s most dangerous pathogens already are transmitted by arthropods, the animal phylum that includes mosquitoes. But so far the United States has not been exposed to a large-scale spread of vector-borne diseases like Rift Valley, chikungunya fever or Japanese encephalitis. But terrorists with a cursory knowledge of science could potentially release insects carrying these diseases in a state with a tropical climate like Florida’s, according to several experts who will speak at the workshop.

I’m no expert, and I’ll gladly cede the floor to someone who can really run the numbers on this sort of thing, but it strikes me that the effort involved in kicking off a terror plot involving the use of insects to spread killer diseases (not to mention the number of failure points and spill-overs involved in using the natural world as your attack vector) makes this a complete non-starter.

Lovely pulp-era plot hook, though…


Blurbflies – airborne insectoid advertising

Paul Raven @ 30-10-2009

OK, so the blurbflies from Jeff Noon’s novel Nymphomation were little flying critters that sang or chanted their advertising copy at you, but this is the first time I’ve seen anything along the lines of using actual insects as an advertising medium, even if via the surreal yet lo-fidelity marketing method of gluing tiny banners to the tushies of everyday houseflies:

Top marks for slightly gross innovation, if nothing else. Knowing the way the marketing business grabs trends and runs with them until they become ubiquitous to the point of infuriating banality, animal-based advertising will probably be massive by next summer and deader than last season’s butterflies by early 2011. So I’m going to grab the opportunity while it’s still fresh; if anyone needs me, I’ll be wandering the Canadian hinterlands, stencilling the Futurismic logo onto climate-refugee polar bears with photo-reactive spraypaint. [hat-tip to Geoff ‘BLDGBLOG’ Manaugh]


Swarming to it

Tom James @ 28-08-2009

iswarm4One of my favourite[1] plausible science fictional tropes is that of tiny robotic insects. The latest step towards their instantiation has been taken by researchers in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland as they put forward their conception of how swarms of mass-produced robotic fleas could be used for surveillance, cleaning, and medical applications:

The technique involves integrating an entire robot – with communication, locomotion, energy storage, and electronics – in different modules on a single circuit board.

In the past, the single-chip robot concept has presented significant limitations in design and manufacturing. However, instead of using solder to mount electrical components on a printed circuit board as in the conventional method, the researchers use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology.

The circuit board is then folded to create a three-dimensional robot.

I can imagine that once this sort of technology matures it will herald a profound change for society. An Orwellian Panopticon where everyone and everything is traced and followed and tracked will become a practicable possibility. Privacy will become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet, with the richest and most powerful people cowering in enclaves sterilized against micro-invaders.

[1]: In that I enjoy them as part of a story and am not entirely ambivalent to their actuality.

[from Physorg][image from Physorg]


Smallest ever free-flying device

Tom James @ 17-08-2009

smallest-uavThe world’s smallest free-flying device has successfully flown. The DARPA-commissioned nano-air-vehicle flew TK without external support:

Aeronvironment has released a video that shows its “nano air vehicle” (NAV), which is the size of a small bird or large insect, hovering indoors without such crutches and under radio control. “It is capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, as well as forward and backward, under remote control,” says the company….
Their ultimate ask is a ten-gram aircraft with a 7.5cm wingspan, which can carry a camera and explore caves and other potential hiding places. “It will need to fly at 10 metres per second and withstand 2.5-metre-per-second gusts of wind”

The micro-ornithopter/robot-insect concept has plenty of precedants in science fiction, and is another example of engineers borrowing from nature to solve engineering problems.

[from New Scientist, via Wired UK][image from ubergizmo]


Re-engineering biology

Tom James @ 31-07-2009

roboticsinsiAs I’ve mentioned before, we’re entering a new phase of technological progress: engineers and technologists are not just seeking inspiration in the mechanisms of the natural world, but are actually reverse- and re-engineering biology to improve synthetic technology. In this case researchers in Germany are studying how bow flies perform their incredible feats of aerial acrobatics by creating a wind tunnel for blow flies (pictured):

A fly’s brain enables the unbelievable – the animal’s easy negotiation of obstacles in rapid flight, split-second reaction to the hand that would catch it, and unerring navigation to the smelly delicacies it lives on.

Yet the fly’s brain is hardly bigger than a pinhead, too small by far to enable the fly’s feats if it functioned exactly the way the human brain does. It must have a simpler and more efficient way of processing images from the eyes into visual perception, and that is a subject of intense interest for robot builders.

While researchers use biomimetic inspiration for the development of flying robots other scientists are working to reprogram existing biological technology, in this case altering bone marrow stem cells so that they function as retinal cells:

University of Florida researchers were able to program bone marrow stem cells to repair damaged retinas in mice, suggesting a potential treatment for one of the most common causes of vision loss in older people.

The success in repairing a damaged layer of retinal cells in mice implies that blood stem cells taken from bone marrow can be programmed to restore a variety of cells and tissues, including ones involved in cardiovascular disorders such as atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease.

For all the pessimism about the future of human civilisation, it is exhilerating to live in an era with so many opportunities and challenges.

[both from Physorg][image from Physorg]


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