The project, DragonflEye, inspired by the astounding abilities of flying insects, is a drone that uses neurons to operate. This technology may someday be the key to highly precision therapies, as well as miniaturized diagnostics.
A first generation backpack guidance system that includes energy harvesting, navigation & optical stimulation (c) NBC News
The project, in collaboration with Charles Stark Draper Laboratory (CSDL) in Massachusetts and and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), uses optogenetics, a technique that employs light to transmit signals to neurons.
DragonflEye sees these tiny flight masters as potentially controllable flyers that would be "smaller, lighter and stealthier than anything else that's manmade," Jesse Wheeler, a biomedical engineer at CSDL said in a statement.
For this project, the experts are detecting and improving "steering" neurons located in the dragonfly's nerve cord, by inserting genes that make it more responsive to light. Meaning, the researchers have genetically modified dragonfly neurons to make them more light-sensitive, and thereby easier to control through measured light pulses.
A close-up of the backpack board and components before being folded and fitted to the dragonfly (c) NBC News
"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," Wheeler said.
Besides controlling insect flight, the tiny, flexible optrodes could also be applied in human medicine, Wheeler added.
"Someday these same tools could advance medical treatments in humans, resulting in more effective therapies with fewer side effects," Wheeler said. "Our flexible optrode technology provides a new solution to enable miniaturized diagnostics, safely access smaller neural targets and deliver higher precision therapies."