Flying Insect Drones Innovate, Open Possibilities

By WPG AmericasJune 28, 2017

Drones come in many sizes and designs for special purposes. Next-generation drones may not just resemble flying insects: they may be an actual robotic insect, remotely controlled by a long-distance operator via electronic signals.

This insect-drone hybrid project is currently underway in collaboration with research and development organization Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, VA.

The remote-controlled insect-drone, called the DragonflEye, is being developed by the Draper Laboratory and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute using a living dragonfly. Engineers at both institutes are genetically modifying the nervous system of the insect so that it can respond to pulses of light. This unique approach, known as optogenetic stimulation, can control the movement of the insect, which can then be used in a variety of activities like carrying payloads, conducting surveillance, or even helping honey bees be better pollinators.

A living dragonfly, according to Anthony Leonardo, the co-principal investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has been modified with tiny sensors that are powerful enough to collect data or take readings in remote places where humans can’t go. There are on-board solar cells to power the DragonflEye’s electronic backpack, which conveniently allows a pilot to remotely control the insect's flying path. 

“The advantage we have in dragonflies is that we think we have found a very special class of neurons that implements sophisticated steering, much like the remote controller of a drone, for a specific behavior - prey capture,” says Anthony Leonardo. “The specificity of these neurons to prey capture is important. What I think we can do is show that these neurons will drive specific steering maneuvers during prey capture flights - maneuvers we control.”

Though the remote-controlled insect is yet to take its first flight, Leonardo says the scientists are making great progress in establishing a connection between the electronic parts and the insect's brain cells that control movement. “We have done genetic interventions and think we are close to having genetic access,” he said. The ultimate goal would be to steer these hybrid insect drones to perform something that is useful to the society, such as boosting pollination to ensure a good harvest.

Jesse Wheeler, a biomedical engineer at Draper and co-principal investigator on the project, believes that using a live dragonfly is a more efficient process than trying to develop one from electronic parts. This is because dragonflies have their own fuel supply (flies) and power supply (wings). "The dragonfly will eat and produce its own energy and is more efficient in its own avionics," Wheeler said. "We only need power for the navigation system. It makes the entire problem more manageable."

However, what’s worrying a lot of people is the potential harm that may come from the misuse of this technology, especially because there are already several defense-based groups and secret agencies trying to control animal movements through optogenetics, or the process of implanting genes from the eye into specific parts of the brain that direct movement. Once done, the brain cells or neurons of these animals are manipulated with pulses of blue light to control their movements. Recently, a Yale University research team announced that they could turn a normal mouse into a ferocious predator using optogenetics technology.

“Many applications are science fiction,” Anthony Leonardo said about the possibilities of military uses. “That's not the short-term objective of what we are doing. The short-term benefits are that you could show steering of an insect in flight in the next year or two, that's an advance. That has far-reaching implications for understanding many behaviors.”

The optogenetic stimulation technology is both awe-inspiring and scary. It isn't hard to envisage the dire consequences if this technology falls into wrong hands. Moreover, the mere thought of regular insects performing espionage activities can also be a bit nerve-wracking.

However, the cyborg insects, besides being an ultimate spy tool, could also help mankind in entirely new ways. Scientists think that the technology powering the movement of a dragonfly can be adapted and used in humans suffering from reduced mobility because of medical issues with a spinal cord or nervous system injury. Though researchers aren’t promising anything, their work on utilizing light to stimulate signals in the nervous system can potentially lead to ground-breaking medical innovations.