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Tiny Backpack Drone Creates Hybrid Insects for Surveillance, Delivery, Pollination

Feb 07, 2017 09:42 AM EST

A lot of aerial drones have been trying to mimic small insects with their processes, but nothing compares to the maneuverability of the real thing. Now, researchers are trying to create a hybrid incorporating drone technology and dragonflies.

According to Draper, engineers from a research project called DragonflEye are starting to create a new hybrid drone that combines miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology to be able to guide dragonflies. The end product looks like a backpack worn by the insects.

The new technology is already showing promises as a way to guide the path of dragonflies, with potential applications including guided pollination, reconnaissance, payload delivery and even precision medicine and diagnostics.

Jesse Wheeler, biomedical engineer, says the DragonflEye system is a new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that is smaller and stealthier. A video footage of the technology shows how the system pushes the boundaries of energy harvesting, motion sensing, algorithms, miniaturization of optogenetics -- all in a device that's small enough for insects to wear.

DragonflEye has been a team effort between Draper and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to create new optogenetic tools that can send guidance commands from the "backpack" to special "steering" neurons in the cords of dragonflies.

The HHMI is applying techniques in synthetic biology to make the "steering neurons" sensitive to light by inserting genes similarly found in the eye. Draper is also developing tiny optical structures, called optrodes, that can activate the special "steering" neurons with pulses of light piped into the nerve cord of the "backpack."

Traditional optic fibers are too stiff to be wrapped around the dragonfly, so they instead developed "flexible optrodes" that can bend light around sub-millimeter turns.

The work on the DragonflEye program builds the company's legacy on autonomous and microsystems, biomedical solutions and materials engineering and microfabricaton. The project gives opportunity to put technology on some of nature's most agile insects. These include the honeybees, whose population has been cut by half in the past 25 years, to assist them in guided pollination.

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