Newly-released CIA documents show how the espionage agency developed a robot dragonfly spy.
The tiny aerial surveillance device – known as the “insectothopter” – was built in the 1970s according to the CIA Museum, where it has been displayed for 16 years.
But blueprints released this week by the US spy agency to website The Black Vault reveal the finely honed microengineering behind it.
They show how CIA engineers had built miniature listening devices by 1970, but getting them over obstacles such as an embassy wall remained a major obstacle.
After attempts to fit microphones to animals failed, the spy agency hit on the concept of a robot insect.
Engineers started developing a miniature device that could fly 200 metres under human guidance.
They initially thought a robotic bee could do the job – but quickly realised it would lack stability.
Instead one of the researchers who was a dragonfly collector suggested that insect as the best candidate for the technology.
In addition to its high manoeuvrability, the dragonfly can easily hover over a target – an essential requirement for any spying operation.
Control was through two lasers – one that controlled the insectothopter’s power and another that steered it.
But the ambitious project was scuppered by the wind factor.
While the robot insect flew perfectly well under laboratory conditions, control was harder to achieve in the blustery unpredictable outdoors.
“The ultimate demonstration of controlled powered flight has not yet been achieved,” the CIA chief scientist wrote.
In the end, the robot dragonfly – developed 40 years before unmanned drones – never flew and the spy agency closed the project.