Genetically Modified Dragonflies Are the Robotic Spies of the Future

Genetically Modified Dragonflies Are the Robotic Spies of the Future Under CC BY 2.0

Dragonflies are being genetically modified by Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Janelia Farm to serve as futuristic drones. The technology is being developed as part of the DragonflEye Project. It manipulates the nervous system of small insects to respond to different patterns of light.

Dragonflies to Perform Human Bidding?

The approach being used is called optogenetic stimulation that is formed with a combination of “miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology, and neurotechnology.” The world of biotech is still ages away from developing robotic insects. Hence, steering dragonflies through electrical implants maybe the closest thing scientists can achieve to make insects do people’s bidding. These dragonflies can, in time, carry payloads, conduct surveillance or even aid bees in becoming superior pollinators.

The technology in question operates on solar energy instead of being battery fueled. Hence, without being burdened by the additional weight of a battery, it can easily be fitted into a miniature-sized backpack, Spectrum reported. These packs can be carried by the dragonflies on their backs without the fear of them weighing them down.

‘Steering’ Instead of ‘Brute Force’

Also, as times have evolved, so have the kind of technology used to manipulate the insects. Electrodes are no longer used to exert physical force on an insect. The modern approach is more delicate, allowing “optrodes” to control the neurological functions of the insect.

A type of “steering” neuron is activated inside its brain cells that act as a link between its sensors and muscle tissue, allowing remote control of the insect’s movements. Pulses of light travel from the backpack to the nervous system of the insect. The optrodes activate some specific neurons inside the insect and leave irrelevant neurons unaffected. This allows the scientists to trigger particular movements within the insects by adjusting the frequency of the light.

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

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