Researchers from biomedical company Draper are developing a technology to convert dragonflies into living drones. Aptly named as DragonflEye, this project’s main components are a tiny backpack supplied with solar panels, integrated guidance, and navigation system composed of optogenetic tools made with the help of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Janelia Farm.
“DragonflEye is a totally new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that’s smaller, lighter and stealthier than anything else that’s manmade,” said Jesse J. Wheeler, a biomedical engineer at Draper and principal investigator on the program. “This system pushes the boundaries of energy harvesting, motion sensing, algorithms, miniaturization and optogenetics, all in a system small enough for an insect to wear.”
The tools used in this system are meant to send commands from the backpack to the dragonfly’s steering neurons, which control the flight inside its nerve cord. Researchers from HHMI have found a way to control those neurons. They made them sensitive to light by including genes found in eyes naturally. They will use the specialized optical structure called optrodes to aim at the exact neural systems needed to take the cyborg dragonfly where it needs to go without impeding the rest of the dragonflies’ neural networks.
“In the first year of the project, we focused on developing core enabling technologies like the backpack, optrode, and synthetic biology toolkit for the dragonfly. As we begin our second year, we are preparing to equip dragonflies with our first-generation backpacks in a motion capture room that can monitor their precise flight movements as data is captured from navigation system. This will allow us to develop precise onboard tracking algorithms for autonomous navigation,” said Jesse J. Wheeler in an interview with IEEE Spectrum.
If end up feasible for practical use, these cyborg dragonflies could be used as pollinators and tiny surveillance systems. Also, this technique could be used on honeybees or on other insects since the key is the backpack. However, they must be careful about the system’s getting hacked. Otherwise, the outcome might be dangerous.