Engineers have taken dragonflies and outfitted them with drone tech to create one of the lightest and stealthiest micro-aerial vehicles around. The insect drones are part of the DragonflEye project at Draper, an independent biomedical solutions laboratory.
DragonflEye vs Other Miniature Drones
The innovative DragonflEye project is remarkable in a lot of ways, but primarily because it cuts out the middleman. While some tiny drones are merely inspired by or mimic insects, DragonflEye makes use of the actual insects themselves. To do this, Draper utilizes advanced neurotechnology and synthetic biology systems, as well as navigation tech, and integrates them into the insect drones.
"DragonflEye is a totally new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that's smaller, lighter and stealthier than anything else that's manmade," DragonflEye principal investigator Jesse J. Wheeler said in an interview. Wheeler also stressed that the system "pushes the boundaries of energy harvesting, motion sensing, algorithms, miniaturization, and optogenetics". He added that all those capabilities are packed into a system that is "small enough for an insect to wear".
Draper worked with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to develop the tech for the DragonflEye project. All of the electronics fit into a tiny pack that is attached to the dragonflies' midsections. This means that the tech could also someday be used on other small insects, such as bees. Because the pack is so small, dragonflies and bees (and other future types of insect drones) will still be able to fly with the packs on.
Optrodes vs Electrodes
Another notable aspect of the DragonflEye project is that instead of using electrodes to force the muscles of the dragonflies to do what the engineers need them to do, it utilizes a gentler, more delicate approach. The insect drones are outfitted with optrodes that activate a special kind of neuron with light pulses. The neurons act as a bridge between the sensors and the muscles of the dragonfly to help "steer" the insect.
Mashable notes that the DragonflEye project could someday benefit the United States' endangered bee populations. Bees could someday be outfitted with the same tech and used as insect drones to gain insight on bee populations and why they are dying.