Draper's Genetically Modified Cyborg DragonflEye Takes Flight

A live dragonfly with a cybernetic backpack and optical implants is now airborne

2 min read
A live dragonfly with a cybernetic backpack and optical implants is now airborne
A live dragonfly with a cybernetic backpack and optical implants is now airborne.
Image: Draper via Vimeo

In January, we wrote about a cybernetic micro air vehicle under development at Draper called DragonflEye. DragonflEye consists of a living, slightly modified dragonfly that carries a small backpack of electronics. The backpack interfaces directly with the dragonfly’s nervous system to control it, and uses tiny solar panels to harvest enough energy to power itself without the need for batteries.

Draper showed us a nifty looking mock-up of what the system might look like a few months ago, but today, they’ve posted the first video of DragonflEye taking to the air.

The unique thing about DragonflEye (relative to other cyborg insects) is that it doesn’t rely on spoofing the insect’s sensors or controlling its muscles, but instead uses optical electrodes to inject steering commands directly into its nervous system, which has been genetically tweaked to accept them. This means that the dragonfly can be controlled to fly where you want, without sacrificing the built-in flight skills that make insects the envy of all other robotic micro air vehicles.

The unique thing about DragonflEye is that it doesn’t rely on spoofing the insect’s sensors or controlling its muscles, but instead uses optical electrodes to inject steering commands directly into the its nervous system

It looks like the above video is mostly showing that the electronics and hardware can be interfaced to the insect while still allowing it to fly, so we may not be seeing the control system in action yet. Even so, this research seems to be moving along very, very quickly, and we’re not entirely sure when this video was shot, so our advice is to give every dragonfly you see zipping around outside a second glance, just in case.

For lots more on DragonflEye, including why Draper thinks this research is worth pursuing, make sure and read our article and interview with principal investigator Jesse J. Wheeler.

[ Draper ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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