Scientists successfully melded technology and dragonflies to make living micro-drones controlled by humans.

Engineers at Draper, a technology research company in Cambridge, and neuroscientists at Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Janelia Research Center outfitted dragonflies with miniature "backpack guidance systems" to control the insects.

Joe Register, a biomedical engineer at Draper and senior researcher on the DragonflEye program, says the team outfitted only a few insects with the guidance systems. Lest you fear an insect-drone infestation near your workplace or home, researchers are testing the technology in the safety of the lab--the dragonflies are not being released into the wild, according to Register.

How did the micro-drones come to be?

Researchers at Howard Hughes first genetically modified the dragonflies so that the insects' neurons associated with its wings now respond to pulses of light. A micro-navigation system sends commands via pulses of light that travel through an optical nerve stimulator to guide the flight path and actions of the dragonfly.

Register says the technology is not ready to leave the lab, but the DragonflEye project is a "broad" technology platform with boundless potential commercial applications.

The applications range from search-and-rescue operations in dangerous buildings to environmental monitoring and large-scale crop pollination, says Register. (The technology, for instance, could be applied to bees to pollinate flowers, according to Draper.)

Other applications could include tracking small animals to help scientists better understand behavior in the wild, or equipping insects with environmental sensors to monitor the influence of climate change. Register says the data from these dragonfly missions could help guide policies to protect fragile ecosystems.

Draper is still looking for a partner to develop the commercial applications, says Register, but he says the platform could be the future of drone technology.

"DragonflEye is the perfect package--it's a totally new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that's smaller, lighter, and stealthier than anything else that's manmade," says Register.

Back in January, Jesse Wheeler, another biomedical engineer at Draper, said the DragonflEye project is not being funded by the military or government. Nor does anyone need to worry about dragonflies being "weaponized" or leading covert operations, he added.

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

Published on: Jun 5, 2017