Researchers are planning on developing animal-robot hybrid drones, in which they hope to be able to control the movement of dragonflies by manipulating their neurons through tiny backpacks wired directly into their brain.
It will work by implanting structures into the dragonflies that will stimulate the neurons in the nervous system responsible for steering the insects. But to achieve this fine level of engineering takes a bit of tinkering. The researchers are altering the neurons by adding in genes normally found in the eye in order to make them sensitive to light.
This will allow them to place thin optical structures, known as optrodes, into the nervous system and use pulses of light to stimulate the motor neurons, to steer the dragonflies. Traditional optical fibers are too stiff and cumbersome to be used and are unable to bend around the neurons, so the optrodes have to be custom-built for the living drones to work.
“DragonflEye is a totally new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that’s smaller, lighter and stealthier than anything else that’s manmade,” explained Jesse J. Wheeler, a biomedical engineer at Draper, the company running the project. “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 tiny kit is designed to fit on a dragonfly like a little backpack, and in theory, could be tailored for use in other insects. This is not the first time that researchers have merged technology and nature to create controllable organisms. It has previously been done with cockroaches, and more controversially with birds, to variable success.
Controlling the flying insects could potentially have some interesting applications, even if it is a little morally dubious. The researchers suggest that the DragonflEyes could be used to aid in pollination, for example, particularly at a time when the health of insect pollinators worldwide is thrown into doubt. Though it may make more sense to try and prevent the natural pollinators from dying rather than simply replacing them.
There are also obvious applications in reconnaissance, with the dragonflies being far superior to human-made drones. There may also be some use in a medical setting, too, as the precise optrodes created for this could provide more targeted, and thus more effective therapies.