The living robot


We can nowadays remotely control a living dragonfly by connecting on its nervous system an electronic device embarked on its back.


I read some days ago an article1 which struck me a bit. This made me feel like: “Hey! In the big family of the new technologies which take place in between the alive world and the mechanical one, here is a newcomer!”. The basic idea is to remotely control a dragonfly. A real one?! (“WTF, you’re a dragonfly and you don’t fly where you want to?”). The objectives shown by the Draper company, at the origin of the project with the Howard Hugues Medical Institute, are the participation in operations of surveillance, the transport of light loads and the pollination of cultures.


Long story short, the functioning of the flying thingy leans on three different technologies:

1) the genetic engineering. Actually, the used dragonfly is not simply captured in the nature: it is also “modified”. By modifying his genome, we make photosensitive the neurons in charge of the activation of the wings muscles;

2) we fix to the dragonfly a device which is going to generate bright flashes on demand (remotely provided), activating the “modified” neurons and thus the wings, making move the dragonfly where it is wished;

3) a source of energy to activate the bright flashes: thus we embark mini-solar panels on the back of the dragonfly, which will produce the electricity used to supply the mechanical part of the “enhanced dragonfly”.

As this project intrigued me, I made some additional researches and it turns out that this one is not the only one of that kind: other identical attempts are currently running. Among them: a cockroach piloted by generating electric impulses on its antennas (project of Darpa)2, a beetle remotely controlled during flight by implanting electrodes on its nervous system3. And certainly many others! (already available or to come soon).

These projects bring in numerous knowledge in very complex and miscellaneous areas: the physics of the flight of the insect, the bio-mechanical process in action during this flight, the functioning of the nervous system of the insect (in order to know which neurons must be activated and which signals must be send to these), the design of a miniature and energetically autonomous embarked electronic device, and finally, for the project of the dragonfly at least, the genetic engineering. That much, huh!!


All this technique, OK, but what for, will you tell me? Well, as said above, military objectives mainly (surveillance, recognition), possibly some industrial ones (transport of light loads), but also much more cooler things (as the cultures pollination). We can also imagine numerous other things to do with this shit (like coordinating attacks of swarms of stinging insects, studying insect colonies, etc.) and also more ambitious operations, in which the human intervention is not required: we could program insects (or thick clouds of insects) to react automatically in a non-natural way (that is to be as we wish it, without any limit other than the imagination of the programmer) to a particular event, or even to its environment in general. We thus see that we could continue like that for a long time trying to enumerate in an exhaustive way all the possibilities offered by these new researches, these being almost infinite. What matters the most in this story is the proof of concept: we are from now on able to mechanically enslave a living being, to bypass its free will! Then, all right, it remains possible with insects only. And still it remains rather complicated to build up a systematic knowledge of the influence of their environment on their behavior, their bio-mechanical, neurological and genetic functioning. Nevertheless, we can imagine… could we eventually later remotely control, let’s say a lizard? Or a mouse? A cat?… A man?

Well, I can imagine that I may seem to be messing around when I say things like this, that could be part of the plot of a science fiction film. But science, the real one, is still progressing… And then, well, it is certainly for in a long time, but one day some men will certainly be crazy enough to try to develop this…

Oh, wait a minute, the centralized storage and the statistical study of all the information4 on your private and biomedical life5, doesn’t it remind you anything?

Science fiction film: remotely controlled cockroach scene from “The 5th element” (Besson, 1997).


1■ Science et avenir, mars 2017; a more developed article on the same subject is available on this website:


3■ ;

4■ by the surveilling of your internet activity

5■ with the sportive training app on your smartphone or your connected watch

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