Skip to main content

Dragonflies are being genetically engineered into cybernetic drones

Update: Draper just released a new video of DragonflEye in action — we’ve posted it below. 

Cybernetic insects may sound like something out of dystopian fiction, but they’re being developed in labs around the world. And their uses may be more beneficial than you’d expect. Some researchers have proposed remote-controlled insects for surveillance, while others think they can help sniff out explosives and aid in search and rescue missions.

Related Videos

Up until now, these insects have mainly been controlled by firing electrical impulses through electrodes plugged into the little invertebrate — a technique that’s been effective but clunky and energy hungry.

Now engineers at Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Janelia Farm have begun work on DragonflEye, a project to develop a more sophisticated technique that may usher in an evolution for cybernetic insects.

“Previous attempts to guide insect flight used larger organisms like beetles and locusts so that they could lift relatively large electronics systems that weighed up to 1.3 grams,” senior biomedical engineer at Draper, Jesse J. Wheeler, told IEEE Spectrum. “These systems did not include navigation systems and required wireless commands to guide flight.”

Rather than hardwire electrodes into the muscles or nervous system, Draper is experimenting with optogenetics, an approach that uses genetic modifications to tweak organisms so they respond to light. This technique would allow for smaller electronics systems, meaning they could be fit onto smaller and more agile insects, such as bees and dragonflies.


With optogenetic stimulation, the insect will be equipped with a specially designed DragonflEye backpack that can collect energy from the sun via mini solar panels and allow the insect to navigate autonomously. Rather than forcing the insects to respond by firing electrodes, Draper researchers will use optrodes to engage specific neurons that control the insects steerings. This method will enable more reliable control, according to Wheeler, while wirelessly transmitting environmental data to an external server.

After a year of research, Wheeler and his team are prepared to test their dragonflies with the DragonflEye backpacks and monitor their movement with hi-speed cameras. “This will allow us to develop precise onboard tracking algorithms for autonomous navigation,” he said. They will then focus on controlling the dragonflies through optical stimulation coming from the backpack, while developing the better, lighter DragonflEye 2.0.

First Look: Behind-the-scenes with DragonflEye

Editors' Recommendations

University of Michigan hopes new drone facility pushes students to great heights
university michigan drone facility m air lab

M-Air | Outdoor U-M Fly Lab for Drones & Autonomous Aerial Vehicles

Up until recently, the University of Michigan's aerospace engineering students could only test their drones in an atrium of one of the university's buildings, and the flying machines had to remain tethered at all times.

Read more
Fold it, stretch it, grip it! An origami-inspired arm gives drones grip
origami arm drone origamidrone

Origami Inspired Foldable Robotic Arm (Inspector Gadget Arm)

You don’t need arms to fly but engineers from Seoul National University in South Korea have developed a robotic appendage designed to give drones a better grip on the world. Inspired by origami, the innovative arm can be folded for transport and self-assembles into a rigid appendage when it’s needed for use.

Read more
Ford is lifting off from the roads and looking into drone technology
dolce and gabbana drone fly catwalk getty images  fashion show

Venturelli/WireImage/Getty Images

Ford has long been part of what happens on the road, but now, it's setting its sights just a little higher -- literally. The automotive company recently published a blog post that revealed it is "looking to the skies" with new drone research. A team in Silicon Valley is researching how drones might ultimately serve Ford's customers in the (not so distant) future.

Read more