February 4, 2023
dragonfly drone

There’s a first for everything in the growing world of all things UAV. Today we’ve discovered what seems to be the first combination of drone and flying insect. Although drones are based on the same laws of motion and dynamics that govern the natural world, Draper’s modified dragonfly is the first to bring technology and nature together so completely.

Take a look for yourself in the video below. This is the DragonflEye from Draper:

If it looks remarkably like a real dragonfly, that’s because it is. Researchers at Draper and Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, have been genetically modifying dragonflies in an effort to control their movements.

This dragonfly, known as dragonflEye, wears a tiny backpack fitted with electronics, sensors and a solar cell. A light source charges the solar cell and powers the backpack.

dragonfly drone

The tiny backpack worn by each dragonfly. 

Now, we’ll be the first to admit that there’s something just a little sinister about genetically modifying insects with a view to creating a swarm of obedient drones. But that doesn’t mean the technology isn’t exciting, or that it doesn’t have potential real-world applications.

Possible uses of the technologies involved include guided pollination, payload delivery and reconnaissance.

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

“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.”

So how does it work?

Genetically modified dragonfly drones will soon respond to commands

dragonfly drone

The team at Draper is working on ways to send guidance commands from the backpack to special “steering” neurons inside the dragonfly nerve cord. They are developing tiny optical structures, called optrodes, that will activate these “steering” neurons with pulses of light from the dragonfly’s backpack. This is technology at its most tiny and most incredible.

It’s not inconceivable that in a few short years it will be impossible to tell a genetically modified drone insect from the real thing. And as long as there are clear applications for the technology it will receive plenty of funding and attention.

Aside from using insects for military and reconnaissance purposes, creations such as the DragonflEye could provide assistance to declining populations of honeybees and help pollinate crops. It’s estimated that honeybees currently contribute more than $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture every year – so it’s got to be worth a try.