Wings have a number of advantages over rotors. That is why dragonflies are increasingly encountering drones that look just like they do. However, the notion of packing electronics on the dragonflies’ backs and letting them do all the work is new.
People have been trying to solve engineering problems by observing nature for centuries. From sensor development to ways of moving from one point to another and concepts for future on-board architectures—bionics may also come to our aid now. After all, nature develops things slowly, but it has been doing so for a pretty long time. In companies it is usually the other way around. Even our “flying machines” were copied from birds in the very beginning. The grandfather of bionics, Leonardo da Vinci, analyzed birds in flight to that end, and even the first “drone” with a rotor was his invention. However, a few years ago drone developers recognized that dragonfly wings are very good at flying.
The artificial “DelFly” dragonfly developed at TU Delft can glide, hover and fly away in any direction. It has a wingspan of 10 centimeters, weighs 3 grams and features an on-board camera. It is also listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s smallest camera plane. There certainly is no shortage of potential applications for this type of “mini spy” in both the civilian and military sectors. At the end of last year, there was even talk about using these kinds of drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras in Russian Army maneuvers.
Cyborg dragonfly with backpack
Engineers from the Draper Laboratory and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) thought, why replicate shiny metallic air acrobats? Their drones make direct use of the dragonfly’s extraordinary flight characteristics. Thanks to its two pairs of independent wings, it can hover in the air or fly forwards and backwards. And at speeds of up to 50 km/h without overtaxing the battery. No imitation can do that. To make the cyborg dragonfly fly in the desired direction, an electronic backpack transmits light pulses directly to the nervous system of the cyborg dragonfly to activate “steering neurons”. Instead of optical fibers, tiny optical structures known as optrodes serve as light conductors. They can steer light in the sub-millimeter range without interfering with nearby neurons.
To make the neurons “light sensitive”, the HHMI “vaccinated” them with genes normally found in the eye. The technology is so light and tiny that it can be attached to a number of insects. The scientists have named rebuilding a bee population as a possible application. The hybrid drones could help during pollination and make reconnaissance flights. But neuron activation technology could also be used on the ground for more effective and direct therapies with fewer side effects.
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