Lizard spies

Aeons ago, almost 2-decades, I wrote a feature for InTech magazine taking-up the subject of sensors which emulate the appearance of insects and perhaps even small lizards, such as chameleons. A drone could be made which looked like a bumblebee, I speculated, and used to inspect radioactivity emanating from a military installation; its appearance would draw no untoward attention, except perhaps annoyance.

Similarly, such sensors could be used to inspect remote nooks and crannies in industrial facilities if it looked like a chameleon.

What do you know? Iran is complaining that perfidious Western powers are using lizards for spying.

Iran’s Western enemies used lizards that “attract atomic waves” to spy on the country’s nuclear program, the former chief-of-staff of Iran’s military announced Tuesday.

[ … ]

We found out that their skin attracts atomic waves and that they were nuclear spies who wanted to find out where inside the Islamic Republic of Iran we have uranium mines and where we are engaged in atomic activities,” Firuzabadi said.

I don’t know of any magical power possessed by chameleons, but it is certainly possible to build a mobile sensor that resembles and behaves on first impression like a chameleon, and such a sensor could be used to inspect military or nuclear facilities without drawing too much attention to itself. I don’t know that the federal government has such a device, but I do know that at one time it was working on such sensors.

So there may very well be a kernel of truth in the story.

I used to keep an eye on the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) requests for proposals, because they were a handy tipsheet to w-a-a-a-y forward-looking technology. In the months preceding 9/11, I was tracking development of a suite of small, tough, Internet-capable sensors that detected sound, vibrations, temperature, et cetera, et cetera. The RFP specified that the sensor had to be able to perform after delivery of huge impulsive forces. An impulsive force is a blow — a fist to the nose, hitting the ground after you fall off the roof. An explosion, or the shockwave from an explosion, would qualify as an impulsive force — but the military isn’t putting sensors on building before blowing them up. So what was this sensor all about?

It wasn’t on the front-burner; it was merely something that I thought might be a story someday, and so every now and then I would look into the progress of the contract, make a phone call — that sort of thing. It was just an interesting little something that might eventually be a feature.

Then came 9/11 — and information about the contract disappeared, and nobody would talk to me about it.

It was years before I found out what had happened. The sensors had been successfully developed, and used in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thousands, tens of thousands, of these sensors had been dropped from airplanes over cavernous terrain (striking the ground with a large impulsive force). Once on the ground, they set up a local Internet-like communications network. If a Taliban fighter left the cave for a smoke, or to barbecue a rat, the sensor would detect it; eventually, a drone would pass overhead and wirelessly collect the data. Next day, a drone would send a missile into the cave entrance.

Nothing will ever replace armed men with boots on the ground, but technology in combination with AI is transforming warfare, too, and I don’t have the slightest difficulty believing we’re using a mobile, chameleon-resembling sensor in Iran’s nuclear facilities. I hope so.

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