The expression “This room is bugged” is not generally used to describe a situation where a live insect carrying audio and camera devices is recording activities in a room … yet. Draper Industries of Cambridge, Massachusetts, wants to change that with its new cyborg bug called the DragonflEye. Clever name, but will it work?
DragonflEye is a totally new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that’s smaller, lighter and stealthier than anything else that’s manmade. 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.
Jesse J. Wheeler, a biomedical engineer at Draper and principal investigator on the DragonflEye program, described in a recent news release the device that will someday turn an ordinary dragonfly into a cyborg DragonflEye. Working with Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wheeler and his team at Draper are developing miniature guidance systems in tiny backpacks to mount on a dragonfly’s back and control its movements via neurons in its nerve cord.
Cyborg insects have been developed before with the cyborg cockroach being the most popular form because of the roach’s size, durability and innate ability to crawl into tight spots. While roaches can fly, they’re better on the ground. Dragonflies offer a ‘roach in the air’ possibility with their large body and brain sizes and outstanding turn-on-a-floating-dime maneuverability.
To control the dragonfly’s brain and nervous system, Drake has developed optrodes – bendable sub-millimeter optical fibers – that deliver pulses of light to genetically-modified neurons that respond to the light and send signals to connecting neurons and the brain to control the dragonfly’s complex movements and steer its flight. The miniaturized equipment to receive instructions, control the dragonfly and send back audio and video feeds is crammed into a tiny solar-powered backpack that will hopefully not cause the dragonfly to find a tree branch and scratch against it until the annoying thing falls off.
The team is currently entering phase two of the DragonflEye project. The backpack, optrodes and modified genes are ready. The next step is to release equipped dragonflies in a motion-capture room to monitor movements, refine the algorithms and make changes to the weight and size of the backpack to minimize its interference with the insect’s primary active.
That primary activity is, of course, spying and surveillance. Draper’s press release refers to the additional benefits of sharing its developments in miniaturization and flight control with other companies and the potential to equip other insects with control backpacks. Honeybees are a logical choice – a bee with a backpack could be directed to pollinate more efficiently while its health (a concern of the bee industry) could be monitored more closely.
However, bugging with a bug is the obvious purpose of this project. It may also provide the next evolution of the word “bug,” which first appeared in the 1300s as a term for a hobgoblin. In the 1600s, the first insect to be given the name was the bedbug, which enters rooms secretly and hides in beds. By the time listening devices got small enough to hide during World War II, ‘bug’ was the obvious choice for a name since much spying was done in the bedroom during nefarious activities.
Don’t start swatting dragonflies just yet … the DragonflEye is still in testing. If you’re that paranoid, perhaps you should find a new line of work.