Future drones may not resemble flying insects - they may actually be an insect-drone hybrid that uses a tiny electronic backpack to "steer" the insect with signals from a long-distance operator.
This remote-controlled insect project is underway as a collaboration between Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm Draper and the Janelia Lab of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Va.
"It's almost like adding remote control [to the insect]," said Anthony Leonardo, the co-principal investigator at HHMI.
The goal would be to eventually direct these hybrid warriors to either conduct surveillance on enemy forces, or perhaps something more helpful to society, such as swarming dragonflies or bees over commercial crops to boost pollination and make sure the harvest is a good one.
While the remote-controlled insect hasn't flown yet, Leonardo says they are getting close to making connections between the electronic parts and the cells in the brain that direct the insect's movement.
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"We have done genetic interventions and think we are close to having genetic access," he said.
It's not the first project to use the dragonfly as a model for flight. Atlanta-based TechJet has designed and built a robot dragonfly. A spinoff firm from Oxford University is partnering with Britain's defense ministry on the "Skeeter" hovering drone that mimics the dragonfly's movements; while Harvard's Microrobotics Lab has built a "robo-bee."
Other groups are also controlling animal movement through "optogenetics" or inserting genes from the eye into parts of the brain that control movement. The brain cells, or neurons, can then be controlled with pulses of blue light, which then result in animal movement.
A Yale University team recently announced it could turn an ordinary mouse into a ferocious hunter using this method.
At HHMI, Leonardo is using a dragonfly because it has defined movement patterns in flight, and because it has big neurons which are easy to work with in the lab.
"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," he said. "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."
With luck and hard work, Anthony and his team expect to have the connections made and be flying the remote-controlled insect in about a year.
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"Many applications are science fiction," Leonardo said about possible military uses of the project. "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."
Using a live dragonfly is more efficient than trying to build one from electronic parts, according to Jesse Wheeler, a biomedical engineer at Draper and co-principal investigator on the project.
That's because dragonflies have their own power supply (wings) and their own fuel supply (flies). Many other tiny drone projects have been stymied by the need for a tiny battery as well. Some micro-drones run on tethers that limit how far they can fly.
"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."
The team expects to connect the genetically engineered dragonflies and their tiny electronic backpacks for the first flight trials in the new few months.
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