The electric snail is here. There’s an electric cockroach too.
Both are early experimental forays in a new line of research aimed at creating tiny, self-powered animal/machine hybrids as an alternative to tiny robots.
Instead of starting from scratch and having to solve all those pesky movement problems that plague roboticists, some researchers have asked, why not start out with living creatures that already know how to walk and fly?
Then all we have to do is make them robotlike, outfitting them with the right technology so that we can enslave them and make them do our bidding — in search-and-rescue work, spying or attacking enemies with bug phobias http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/phobia-simplespecific/overview.html?inline=nyt-classifier .
The snail is not an obvious military choice, except perhaps in a biowarfare attack on some nation’s lettuce sector, but this whole area of research is just beginning, and snails are easy to catch and keep track of in the lab.
A major challenge in roboticizing living creatures is that they don’t come with batteries, but electricity is needed to power the sensors and transmitters and that would enable remote control. But no problems are insurmountable — certainly not for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/d/defense_advanced_research_projects_agency/index.html?inline=nyt-org , or Darpa, the Alice-in-Wonderland government agency that supports all sorts of “what if” research, like mind-reading technology and insect/machine hybrids.
Darpa, naturally, has a research program into Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems (HI-MEMS).aspx> , one goal of which is to uncover new ways “to harness the natural sensors and power generation of insects.”
Power generation is where the electric snail comes in. Evgeny Katz, a professor of chemistry at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., who, with colleagues, reported on the electric snail in The Journal of the American Chemical Society this month, is not supported by Darpa, yet, but sees his work as having importance for just the sort of thing Darpa is working on.
Eventually, he said, an animal would provide its own power for sensors or receivers, or any other device that had been implanted. But, he said, the field is very new. “At the moment we are just working at the step of generating power,” Dr. Katz said.
What he and his colleagues did was to poke two electrodes coated with enzymes through the shell of a snail into a space between the shell and the body, where glucose is present, produced by the snail for its own biological purposes. The enzymes promote chemical reactions that produce a flow of electrons — electricity — drawn from glucose molecules.
This kind of process had been worked out by others, like Adam Heller at the University of Texas at Austin, with the idea that it could be used in living, moving animals, Dr. Katz said, but that step had not been taken yet. The snail moved around for several months, going about typical snail business, while producing pulses of electricity in tiny amounts.