R&D company Draper teamed up with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Janelia Farms to create the next generation of cybernetic dragonflies that combines “miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology, and neurotechnology.”
The group was able to pack all of the electronics into a tiny “backpack,” meaning that small insects (like bees and dragonflies as opposed to large beetles) can fly while wearing it. Some of the size reduction comes from the use of solar panels to harvest energy, minimizing the need for batteries. There’s also integrated guidance and navigation systems, so a fully autonomous navigation is possible outside of a controlled environment.
To steer the dragonflies, the Draper engineers are developing a way of genetically modifying the nervous system of the insects so they can respond to pulses of light. Once they get it to work, this approach, known as optogenetic stimulation, could enable dragonflies to carry payloads or conduct surveillance, or even help honey bees become better pollinators.
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.