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CIA exhibits spy gadgets with Bond edge

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Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Espionage and Intelligence
Science and Technology

LANGLEY, Virginia (Reuters) -- The CIA once built a mechanical dragonfly to carry a listening device but found small gusts of wind knocked it off course so it was never used in a spy operation.

The agency also tested a 24-inch-long rubber robot catfish named "Charlie" capable of swimming inconspicuously among other fish and whose mission remains secret.

Charlie and the dragonfly were among spy gadgets displayed at CIA headquarters in an exhibit to mark the 40th anniversary of the Directorate of Science and Technology. It is not open to the public.

"Charlie's mission is still classified, we can't talk about it," Toni Hiley, curator of the CIA museum, told Reuters on a tour of the exhibit. "All we can say is he's our work on aquatic robotic technologies."

After seeing the life-like "insectothopter," Hiley jokes that she cannot look at a dragonfly in the same way anymore.

In the 1970s the CIA had developed a miniature listening device that needed a delivery system, so the agency's scientists looked at building a bumblebee to carry it. They found, however, that the bumblebee was erratic in flight, so the idea was scrapped.

An amateur entymologist on the project then suggested a dragonfly and a prototype was built that became the first flight of an insect-sized machine, Hiley said.

A laser beam steered the dragonfly and a watchmaker on the project crafted a miniature oscillating engine so the wings beat, and the fuel bladder carried liquid propellant.

Despite such ingenuity, the project team lost control over the dragonfly in even a gentle wind. "You watch them in nature, they'll catch a breeze and ride with it. We, of course, needed it to fly to a target. So they were never deployed operationally, but this is a one-of-a-kind piece," Hiley said.

Donald Kerr, CIA deputy director for science and technology whose equivalent in a James Bond movie would be "Q" the master spy gadgeteer, said the tempo of spy operations has increased since his directorate was established in August 1963.

"You look at just the number of things we're doing, a week, a year, it's really quite astounding," Kerr said.

U.S. spy agencies are trying to develop technologies to track individuals, but the United States has so far failed to find two of the world's most wanted men -- al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"It's not a new problem, it's in fact been a problem for law enforcement for years. So one of the areas we spend a lot of effort on is so-called tagging and tracking," Kerr said.

"It's everything from 'can I paint a bullseye on your back and follow you with a camera?' Or do you leave a trail of candy wrappers that are unique to you that I can use to find you?" Kerr said. "So you're dealing with the physical and electronic detritus that people leave behind as one way of tracking."

Facial recognition technology can be useful but not to search for an individual because the databases are too big."If I have a picture of somebody in the New York subway and I search it against pictures of everybody I think are bad people in the world, it's an immense problem and the false results are overwhelming," Kerr said.

The CIA also showed off its miniature technology.

A microdot camera had a tiny lens on top of what looked like a thick coin, which contained a film that rotated 11 times to produce 11 microdots.

Another item on display was newly declassified triangle-shaped directional antenna, weighing four ounces and used on mobile surveillance operations throughout the 1980s.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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