Scientists Put Backpacks on Dragonflies to Track Their Brains in Flight


The brain of a dragonfly has to do some serious calculations — and fast — if it hopes to nab a mosquito or midge in midair. It has to predict the trajectory of its prey, plot a course to intersect it, then make adjustments on the fly to counteract any evasive maneuvers. Neuroscientist Anthony Leonardo created the tiny dragonfly backpack above to study how circuits of neurons do these computations.

The backpack weighs 40 milligrams, about as much as a couple grains of sand, equal to just 10 percent of the dragonfly’s weight. Electrodes inserted into the dragonfly’s body and brain record the electrical activity of neurons, and a custom-made chip amplifies the signals and transmits them wirelessly to a nearby computer.

One of the trickiest design challenges was how to power the chip without adding so much mass that the insects couldn’t get off the ground, says Leonardo, who’s based at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia.

He and collaborators at Duke University and Intan Technologies came up with a clever solution based on the same technology found in the RFID key card access system used in many office buildings. There, a reader, usually a small pad next to a door, emits radio waves to create a magnetic field. When a key card gets close enough to the reader, the magnetic field induces a current that powers a chip inside the card, enabling it to transmit a code to unlock the door.

The two long antennae on the dragonfly backpack harvest radio waves and power the chip in a similar way. Eliminating the need for a battery on the backpack was the key to keeping the weight down.

Written By: Greg Miller
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  1. Miniaturisation is opening up all sorts of new fields of research! This should greatly add to our knowledge as the data builds over the years.

  2. I had an encounter with a dragonfly years ago. I was spraying water (treated with algaecide) into a pond at a summer camp. Every day for a week or so I’d do this and this dragonfly would fly across the pond and hover, looking at me (I think). So, I shot the stream of water droplets at him with a flip of my wrist. He literally dodged the water droplets and hovered there, in space. This went on for a few minutes every morning for the week.

    I was astonished at the maneuverability of this bold critter. It’s vision and reaction time and acrobatic ability was something I’d never seen. It got me more interested in studying Biology and I hope this research leads to some cool knowledge about just what is going on in the insect brain.

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