Dragonfly brains could teach us how to make a better missile

first_imgConsider this: it takes a first-year physics major about five minutes to do the calculations that would let them intercept a Frisbee in mid-flight, yet that same student’s golden retriever can do this almost instantly — as can the student themselves. How can the unconscious brain easily take actions that the conscious brain finds so difficult? The answer lies in all sorts of cutting-edge areas of research, from neural pruning to information theory, but the simple answer is this: given as specific enough goal, evolution can shape a brain to mechanically complete some very, very complex tasks.This implies that it is not the mind, but the brain which is completing these calculations on the fly, or some short-hand version of them, which immediately opens the door for investigation. One team from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University is looking into this problem by studying the brains of dragon-flies in flight. These insects have a much harder job than Fido, whose target moves reliably, thrown so as to be easy to catch; their targets are mosquitoes whose evasive techniques are just as developed as their own for hunting. Split-second course corrections and prediction of behavior are necessary — so how did evolution achieve this?This ridiculous, dragonfly-fooling setup was required before the insects would hunt their prey in captivity.To answer this question, the researchers fitted a number of dragonflies with a tiny computer backpack that records and transmits the electrical activity in its brain. Weighing just 40 milligrams, or about 10% of the insect’s overall weight, the pack will hopefully leave the dragonflies relatively unencumbered and ready for all the veering, tumbling avionics their food-source requires.To keep the weight down, the researchers used the antennae on the backpack to harvest energy from radio waves, similar to the way an RFID key card uses radio waves to transmit its security key.Like getting pandas to mate, getting a dragonfly to hunt apparently involves quite a bit of mood-setting. They had to lay turf on the ground, introduce a small pond, and even paint an idyllic meadow scene on the walls before the dragonflies would even glance at the fruit flies provided by the researchers for easy meals.They already know that the neurons that control visual input are physically wired to those that control the movement of the wings — when fully engaged, the visual-input-to-course-correction mechanism appears to be hard wired, which might explain the insect’s incredible accuracy in flight.However, fully understanding this process has implications not just for baseball players and jet pilots, but for all branches of neurology as well. If an organism as simple as a dragonfly can achieve something as Miyagi-like as catching a mosquito, then their findings could have some truly exciting implication, going forward. If we can understand the dragonfly, we could use that knowledge on all manner of flight control mechanisms, from course correction to aircraft design to predictive controls.last_img read more