‘Cyborg dragonfly’ equipped with sophisticated electronics

June 16, 2017
by Mark Ollig

The next time you see a dragonfly hovering in the air, look closely; it might have advanced technology attached to its back.

Creating artificial robotic flying insects or “micro-aerial drones” for completing secret covert airborne operations has proven to be a challenging endeavor.

One alternative is attaching technology onto (and into) a living insect that already has the quick, agile, stealthy flying thing figured out.

Prepare yourselves for hybrid drone insects; specifically, cyborg dragonflies.

You’re right; this is starting to sound like a futuristic science fiction movie – except it’s happening today.

DragonflEye is the name of the project which developed the technology for controlling the flightpath of a living dragonfly.

The Draper organization, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute located in Ashburn, VA are working together on this new technology.

We should note other applications for DragonflEye include guided pollination, payload delivery, and aerial reconnaissance.

“The smallest aerial drones mimic insects in many ways, but none can match the efficiency and maneuverability of the dragonfly,” Draper said in a press news release.

A tiny, foldable “backpack” package containing sophisticated electronic components was attached onto and physically interfaced with a real dragonfly.

I learned Draper was founded by Professor Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, who taught students and performed research in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratory during the mid-1930s.

Draper’s research grew into a leading-edge engineering organization during the 1950s, and was responsible for designing and developing the guidance systems, instrumentation, and control systems for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

His work also provided NASA with the advanced navigation system used during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

Additional Apollo systems developed by Draper included a computerized inertial guidance device, and a telescopic sextant used for navigation in space.

Draper’s organization became an independent not-for-profit in 1973, and expanded its technological prowess into microelectromechanical systems and electronic packaging.

Draper had a long working relationship with the US Navy and NASA.

Draper, who became known as the “father of inertial navigation” was born Oct. 2, 1901 and passed away July 25, 1987.

Today, the Draper organization and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute team are also developing technology for creating new optogenetics tools.

I admit to looking up what “optogenetics” means.

Our good friends at Merriam-Webster provided me with the following definition of optogenetics: “The use of genetic engineering and optics to selectively monitor or control nerve cell activity.”

“Scientists say optogenetics is exciting because it gives them extraordinary control over specific brain circuits,” according to a May 17, 2011 New York Times article.

I assume this “extraordinary control” would include dragonfly brain circuits, as well.

The article went on to say: “The medical value of optogenetics research can provide new insights into an array of disorders, among them anxiety and Parkinson’s disease.”

In the case of DragonflEye, optogenetics will be used to transmit neuromodulation guidance commands from the dragonfly’s attached backpack, to “steering neurons” located inside the dragonfly’s fiber nerve cord.

These steering neurons are used for controlling the direction of where the dragonfly flies.

Tiny optical structures, called optrodes, are being developed by Draper for activating the steering neurons using pulses of light transmitted into the dragonfly’s nerve cord from the attached electronics package.

The aerial flightpath of the dragonfly is controlled using light-signaling.

“DragonflEye is a totally new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that’s smaller, lighter, and stealthier than anything else that’s manmade,” said Jesse J. Wheeler, biomedical engineer at Draper and principal investigator on the program.

“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,” Wheeler added.

Energy harvesting refers to solar energy.

The electronics inside the backpack package is maintained by both ambient solar, and radio frequency energy harvested from within the environment.

For example, excessive energy from wireless communications signals in the air can be harvested and used to power the electronics package attached to the dragonfly.

A living dragonfly naturally forages for food; such as mosquitos, to maintain its own chemical energy.

Draper’s first-generation backpack was equipped with an energy harvesting system, guidance navigation, and optical stimulation umbilical attached to a scale model of a dragonfly.

Since dragonflies are extremely quick, agile, and abundant on this planet, they should make excellent covert scouting agents for the US military and intelligence agencies.

Of course, dragonflies do have natural predators, such as reptiles, fish, frogs, and other insects.

Bees regularly attack dragonflies.

I wonder if the powers that be (no pun intended) have considered the possibility of another country developing cyborg bee drones for countering our cyborg dragonfly drones.

Stay tuned.

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