Two research companies are splicing technology and nature to modify the nervous system of dragonflies and turn the insects into efficient, human-controlled drones.

Draper, a technology research company in Cambridge, and neuroscience-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Janelia Research Center are cooperating on the project. According to a Draper statement, engineers built a "backpack guidance system" to control dragonflies. The neuro-technology is powered by tiny solar panels, guided by a micro-navigation system and can send commands through an optical nerve stimulator. The project, which is called DragonflEye, hopes to guide the flight path and actions of dragonflies, says Jesse Wheeler, a biomedical engineer at Draper, to create a new type of aerial vehicle -- human-controlled insects.

Researchers at Howard Hughes genetically modified dragonflies so the insects' neurons associated with its wings respond to light. The project is not controlling the insects yet. Right now it's just sending commands to the bugs through pulses of light to study how the bugs respond, Wheeler says.

"Dragonflies are the most agile and efficient aviators, much more so than unmanned aerial vehicles. We want to understand how dragonflies work and respond to their environment," says Wheeler. "We will see if we can influence the flight path."

The tiny technology that will send light signals to the dragonfly is called "optogenetic stimulation," or the stimulation of optic nerves to send commands. The engineers have made miniature optrodes, optical fibers that wrap around the insect's nerve cord, to activate neurons that control the insects' movements. The "backpack," which Wheeler and other engineers at Draper made, will send the light signals and the optrode will carry the signal directly to the neurons associated with the muscles that control the insect's wings. This type of precise targeting of specific neurons is unprecedented, says Wheeler.

Currently, the technology is just for study. But Wheeler says the application of optogenetic technology could be applied to honeybees in an effort to assist the dwindling population and help increase pollination. He also said the mini neurotechnology could be applied to humans. An unrelated company, RetroSense Therapeutics, is currently conducting an FDA-approved study to see if optogenetic technology can cure degenerative blindness.

"Someday these same tools could advance medical treatments in humans for precise medicine that can target specific organs and cells, resulting in more effective therapies with fewer side effects," says Wheeler. "Instead of drowning a body in pharmaceutical drugs, we can use precision."

Wheeler also says the technology could be used to make a "cheaper, lighter, stealthier" aerial vehicle that could be used for "reconnaissance." But, Wheeler says Draper is not working on that application and says the DragonflEye project is not being funded by the military or government. When asked whether or not we should expect an army of weaponized dragonflies or a swarm of surveillance insect bots, Wheeler said no.

"Make no mistake: we are not releasing dragonflies to do surveillance or reconnaissance missions," says Wheeler.

Wheeler says reconnaissance and surveillance by insects is an area that deserves careful consideration before being applied and he emphasized that Draper is not making surveillance bug-drones.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, says that miniaturization of technology has made it easier to spy on people without the subject knowing about it. But he also says that technology is not bad just because it exists. Stanley says the application and who is involved is what makes a technology application positive or negative.

"Tools are tools; you can use technology for good and you can use it for bad," says Stanley. "It's up to us to make sure we have good over-arching privacy laws to protect us."

Back in 1969, Draper's guidance and navigation system helped Apollo 11 land safely on the moon. Now, the company has made a navigation system small enough to fit on a dragonfly.

"We are interested in seeing the dragonfly as a literal vehicle, but manmade technology can also mimic the dragonfly to become cheaper and more efficient," says Wheeler.

Published on: Jan 26, 2017