For years, scientists have been trying to replicate, through robotics, insects and their associated behaviors. However, due to technological limitations, robotic insects have not had the versatility and capability as real insects. Recently, engineers at the R&D company Draper announced Project DragonflEye – a plan they hope will overcome these limitations. Together they have teamed up with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Janelia Farms to create the next generation of cybernetic dragonflies. Their collaboration has led to the development of miniaturized backpack able to be worn by dragonflies, and eventually other insects. The goal is to use the backpack to control the dragonfly’s movements by sending pulses of light to the insect’s neurons.
Attempts to guide insect flight are not new, with previous attempts being made using larger insects such as locusts and beetles. Although these insects were able to lift relatively larger electronic systems, these systems did not allow for autonomous flight and used a type of “brute force” method to exert control of the insect’s wings via electrical stimulation. However, using electrical stimulation to directly control an insect’s wings interferes with the muscle’s ability to produce, smooth, stable, and sustainable flight.
Draper and HHMI’s plan has a number of significant differences and advantages over past attempts. First, the team decided to use dragonflies, since they are small, lightweight, agile, can cover large distances and are found worldwide. The primary difference in the team’s plan is the use of light pulses, known as optogenetic stimulation, instead of electricity, to control and monitor the dragonflies. This will be accomplished by genetically modifying specific types of steering neurons in the dragonfly’s body to either receive impulse of light, or emit them. The use of light as opposed to electricity allows for a more delicate and accurate approach to controlling flight, as well as data collection from light emitted from neurons.
The backpack itself is designed for autonomous navigation, which is a departure from past systems that required wireless control from an operator. In addition, the backpack contains solar panels that allow it to harvest energy from the environment for extended operation, as well as the ability to wirelessly transmit various types of data back to a base station. The DragonflEye system only requires power for navigation and data transfer, not flight. This means it can operate indefinitely and has a decided advantage over robotic insects and previous systems, which had very limited flight time. As second-generation backpack is already in development and will be smaller, light, and more functional.
There are many scientific benefits of the DragonflEye Project. One benefit is being able to monitor how environmental changes affect insects, allowing us better insight into the behavior of insects and other small animals in their natural habitat. In addition, we would have the ability to guide important behaviors, such as pollination. Another important benefit from the DragonflyEye Project is that data captured in the field can help us develop and guide policies that protect our ecosystems for future generations.
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