DragonflEye backpack turns actual insect into optogenetically steered drone

Sept. 13, 2017
Researchers are using photonics to harness the biological finesse of an actual insect to perform robotic tasks, including pollination, surveillance, or carrying small payloads.

Even though biomimetic robotic insects and other microrobots are in development, researchers at The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory (Cambridge, MA) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI; Chevy Chase, MD) are using photonics to harness the biological finesse of an actual insect to perform robotic tasks, including pollination, surveillance, or carrying small payloads.

Already, the group has seen "first flight" of an actual dragonfly equipped with a small solar-powered backpack with sensors used for navigation. The insect will be steered by an implantable optical neural interface called an optrode. Rather than communicating to the nervous system with electrical pulses, which can unintentionally activate neurons unrelated to flight, use of optogenetic stimulation will allow special "steering" neurons to be preferentially controlled. Individual steering neurons can be genetically modified by inserting light-sensitive, wavelength-specific opsins to be turned on or off (or even emit light for monitoring).

The tiny optrode was developed to wrap around the 250 μm nerve cord in tight turns and direct light toward small groups of neurons. Smaller and more flexible than a traditional optical fiber, the optrode technology can also be used to communicate with small anatomical structures in humans to treat diseases with higher specificity and fewer side effects.

Unlike robots that need heavy batteries for both navigation and flight, dragonflies require only small solar cells on their backpack to control navigation and can feed from the environment to power their 9 g acceleration flights over long time periods. Reference: https://goo.gl/XZdGVn.

About the Author

Gail Overton | Senior Editor (2004-2020)

Gail has more than 30 years of engineering, marketing, product management, and editorial experience in the photonics and optical communications industry. Before joining the staff at Laser Focus World in 2004, she held many product management and product marketing roles in the fiber-optics industry, most notably at Hughes (El Segundo, CA), GTE Labs (Waltham, MA), Corning (Corning, NY), Photon Kinetics (Beaverton, OR), and Newport Corporation (Irvine, CA). During her marketing career, Gail published articles in WDM Solutions and Sensors magazine and traveled internationally to conduct product and sales training. Gail received her BS degree in physics, with an emphasis in optics, from San Diego State University in San Diego, CA in May 1986.

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