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No, US government not using insect spy drones to spy on people

Will tiny drones designed to look like mosquitoes soon be flying into our cities to spy on us? That’s the claim in a meme shared on Facebook in South Africa.

The meme shows a fabricated object that looks like a mosquito, which seems to be standing on a human finger.

Its text reads: “Is this a mosquito? No. It’s an insect spy drone for urban areas, already in production, funded by the US government. It can be remotely controlled and is equipped with a camera and a microphone. It can land on you, and may have the potential to take a DNA sample or leave RFID tracking nanotechnology on your skin. It can fly through an open window, or it can attach to your clothing until you take it home.”

Is this true? We checked.

Micro-air vehicles

A Tineye reverse image search reveals that the image of the mosquito-like object has been online since 2008 – 11 years ago.

Business Insider, in a 2012 article, said drones and biotechnologies were “approaching the point where something like this is theoretically possible”, but were then “only imagination”.

For years there have been many creations of drones that were made to resemble insects. One was a MAV model, from 2007, which had a 3 centimetre wingspan. It was displayed at a robotics conference.

In 2008, the US Air Force released a simulated video which showed a MAV about the size of a bumblebee.

And in 2012, engineers at the John Hopkins University were studying the flight of butterflies to “help small airborne robots mimic these manoeuvres”.

The new drones of 2019 are still in the prototype stage. It “will be years before they’re ready to zip around outside”, says an NBC News article. 

But they are in the business of being refined to “fly farther and more adeptly and to carry cameras, radios, GPS systems and a variety of sensors”, NBC adds. 

Claims made in photo ‘unlikely’

Africa Check contacted the John Hopkins University and spoke to Dr Rajat Mittal, a professor of mechanical engineering at the John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering.

He told us he did not know of any technology, like the one in the claim, being used as spy drones to spy on those in urban areas.

He also added that it was unlikely that, if the technology did exist, it would be able to take a blood sample or leave RFID (radio-frequency identification) tracking devices on the skin.

Conceptual mock-up design

US fact-checking site Snopes debunked the meme in 2012, saying that the mosquito-like object was just a conceptual mock-up of a design for a MAV, not a photograph of an actual working device “already in production.” 

“So the claims made in the post currently appear to be speculative fiction rather than reality,” Snopes says.

Even if it were a reality, the rules of aerodynamics change at very tiny scales and require wings that flap in precise ways, wrote Snopes, which would be “a huge engineering challenge”. 

Scientists have only recently come to understand how insects fly, it adds, and even if the technical hurdles are overcome, “insect-size fliers will always be risky investments”. – Taryn Willows


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