The smallest aerial drones mimic insects in many ways, but none can match the efficiency and maneuverability of the dragonfly. Now, engineers at Draper are creating a new kind of hybrid drone by combining miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology to guide dragonfly insects. The system looks like a backpack for a dragonfly.
DragonflEye, an internal research and development project at Draper, is already showing promise as a way to guide the flightpath of dragonflies. Potential applications of the technologies underpinning DragonflEye include guided pollination, payload delivery, reconnaissance and even precision medicine and diagnostics.
“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.”
DragonflEye has been a team effort between Draper and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Janelia Research Campus to create new optogenetic tools that send guidance commands from the backpack to special “steering” neurons inside the dragonfly nerve cord.
Research at HHMI—led by Anthony Leonardo, Janelia Research Campus group leader—has led to a deeper understanding of “steering” neurons in the nervous system of the dragonfly that control flight. HHMI is applying techniques in synthetic biology to make these “steering” neurons sensitive to light by inserting genes similar to those naturally found in the eye.
Draper is developing tiny optical structures, called optrodes, that can activate the special “steering” neurons with pulses of light piped into the nerve cord from the dragonfly’s backpack. Traditional optical fibers are too stiff to be wrapped around the tiny dragonfly nerve cord, so Draper developed innovative flexible optrodes that can bend light around sub-millimeter turns. These optrodes will enable precise and targeted neural activation without disrupting the thousands of nearby neurons.
“Someday these same tools could advance medical treatments in humans, resulting in more effective therapies with fewer side effects,” said Wheeler. “Our flexible optrode technology provides a new solution to enable miniaturized diagnostics, safely access smaller neural targets and deliver higher precision therapies.”
Draper’s work on the DragonflEye program builds on its legacy in autonomous systems, microsystems, biomedical solutions and materials engineering and microfabrication. This deep expertise extended previous Janelia Research Campus work in energy harvesting and miniaturization to create the insect-scale autonomous navigation and neuromodulation system.
DragonflEye provides opportunities to put technology on some of nature’s most agile insects. For instance, honeybees, whose population has collapsed by half in the last 25 years, could be equipped with Draper’s technology to assist with pollination. One of nature’s greatest pollinators, honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture every year. Draper’s tiny guidance system could help stem the loss of pollinators by monitoring their flight patterns, migration and overall health.
Our excitement with and rapid uptake of technology – and the growing opportunities for artificial brain enhancement – are putting humans more firmly on the path to becoming cyborgs, according to evolution experts from the University of Adelaide.
In their new book The Dynamic Human, authors Professor Maciej Henneberg and Dr Aurthur Saniotis chart the full scope of human evolution, with a look at the past, present and future development of our species.
And while they believe that future humans will more readily combine their own organic material with technology, the authors caution that such enhancements must not ignore humans’ highly complex biology.
Professor Henneberg and Dr Saniotis are members of the Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit in the University of Adelaide’s School of Medicine. They are also associates of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
Professor Henneberg says their underlying approach to the book is that the human species continues to evolve: “There is still a tendency by some to view the current form of human beings as static, and that we will stay as such into the future unless some catastrophe causes our extinction,” he says.