New Duke Telemetry System Enables Dragonflies to be Study in Real-time

A team of electrical engineers at Duke University have developed a wirelessly powered telemetry system. Their system features a chip that is light enough to attach to a flying dragonfly. The chip can transmit the electrical signals from neurons in real time. In the past, telemetry systems were too heavy and had to be used on immobilized dragonflies.

The Duke telemetry system does not need batteries. Its power is beamed wirelessly to the flying dragonfly. As a result, scientists can study the intricate neurological activity of dragonflies as they capture prey on the wing. The chip was developed for scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), who are trying to better understand the complex flight control system of dragonflies. In addition to dragonflies, the new system will also enable the behavior study of other small animals remotely for the first time.

The chip was developed by Matt Reynolds (Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering) and Reid Harrison (Intan Technologies). It weighs only 38 milligrams, which is less than half the weight of a postage stamp. The new chip is one-fifth the weight of earlier telemetry systems, but with 15 times greater bandwidth.

The wireless power transmitter can send enough power to the chip to enable it to send back data at over five megabits per second, which is comparable to a typical home Internet connection. This will allow scientists to sync the neuronal data gathered from the chip with high-speed video taken while the insect is in flight and preying on fruit flies.

The researchers expect to begin flight experiments with dragonflies over the next few months. The testing will take place in a specially designed flight arena at HHMI’s Janelia Farm complex equipped with nature scenes on the walls, a pond and plenty of fruit flies for the dragonflies to eat.

The chip, with two hair-thin antennae, will be attached to the belly of the insect so it does not interfere with the wings. Being carried like a backup parachute on the underside of the animal also gives it uninterrupted radio contact with the power transmitter on the ground.

The project is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Duke graduate student Stewart Thomas was also a member of the team.

More info: Duke University