It’s not a bird! It’s not a plane! It’s a dragonfly, and researchers are using a microchip attached to its belly to understand the complex mechanics of its flight.

Dragonflies capture their prey mid-flight, requiring precise control of horizontal and vertical movement to line up their meal with their mouths.

“Dragonfly wings almost swim through the air,” says electrical engineer Matt Reynolds from Duke University. “They have many more degrees of freedom than an airplane’s wing.”

That’s Reynolds in the picture above, holding an example of the microchip, which, at 38 milligrams, weighs just one-tenth what a dragonfly does, and doesn’t interfere with its ability to fly and hunt. It’s so light because it’s powered wirelessly and can transmit data at the rate of five megabits per second – about the speed of a typical home internet connection.

He is working with a team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to determine how dragonflies manoeuvre through the air, and what we can learn that may lead to advances in robotic flying vehicles of the future.

Electrodes connected to 16 neurons in the dragonfly’s nerve cord will transmit information that travels from the dragonfly’s eyes as they spy their prey to their motor control system.

High-speed video will be correlated with neural signals as the microchipped dragonflies capture fruit flies, giving researchers insight into flight-control laws that govern these winged wonders


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