Image courtesy of Draper

When thinking of drones, many thoughts come to mind–package delivery, swarm intelligence, machine vision, etc. But when contemplating the rise in drone usage, the machine in the mind’s eye of most is nearly always a quad-rotor machine of metal or plastic, if not a mix of both.


DragonflEye could quickly change the image of what we call a  “drone” now that their tiny, solar-powered mind control backpacks have delivered results.


Although cyborg insects are old hat to many people (and a weekend science project to some), DragonflEye is not your average robo-bug. Rather, the sophistication of its navigation system and subsequent maneuverability sets it apart. The project, which was announced in January, is showing success a mere few months later.

Draper, the makers of DragonflEye, are combining “miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology” into one of nature’s most efficient flyers, the dragonfly. This is no quick job of simply programming physical stimulus to move the dragonfly’s wings, a process that is complex in and of itself due to the precision aspects of wing-flapping that turn these pulses into smooth flight.


Nor is it mere mind control, because dragonflies, just as humans, can grow to resist impulses and instead take a different flight path than the one down which their programmer guides them.


As Devin Coldewey explains in his post on Wired, Draper Lab’s DragonflEye navigation system works in dragonflies that have been genetically modified to both receive and transmit light signals on the interneuron pathways that control their flight steering–allowing “pilots” to both control steering signals as well as receive feedback on them. The control and feedback come from the dragonfly’s neural cord which is wired directly into the backpack using the flexible optogenetic technology developed by Draper and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.   


Not only that, but data tracking via motion capture has also allowed Draper Labs to develop algorithms to control the bugs which results in autonomous flight, as we often see in artificial intelligence-driven non-biological drones.


But why do we need mind control cyborg dragonflies? Well, there are a few different ways which humans can use these creatures.

Among their many beneficial abilities is artificial pollination–something that could be very important to humanity’s continuing existence, endangered by drastically falling bee populations. Between 2015 and 2016, honeybee populations fell 44%, bad news for folks who enjoy things like berries and vegetables since agriculture relies heavily on these natural pollinators.


While ways to save our bee populations are still being considered, cyborg dragonflies could help reduce the loss that farmers are experiencing in the meantime, and DragonflEye could be used to help pollinate wild plants as well, if nature requires human intervention due to our damage of native species.


Beyond pollination, the flexible optrode technology used in the DragonflEye to precisely stimulate specific neural pathways may also advance medical treatments for use on humans, according to Draper.


As more iterations of the DragonflEye result in increasingly autonomous and maneuverable insects, Draper also hopes they can be used for reconnaissance and payload delivery.


Some people, however, have an ethical issue with modifying dragonfly behavior this way, as is apparent by the reader commentary on IEEE’s release of this news. We may see more along these lines of thinking as biology and technology become more and more inextricably linked.


What do you think about dragonfly drones? How can they help humanity? Do you have any moral dilemmas in merging biology and technology? Let us know in the comments below!