The seemingly relentless disappearance of bees and other pollinating insects is endangering our food, our health and our economy. The intensive use of pesticides and neonicotinoids has contributed in large measure to this extinction. In the face of this phenomenon, researchers are working hard to find solutions. Some are even making genetically modified cyborg insects to pollinate our crops.
Dome Japanese researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science (AIST) in Tsukuba had already succeeded in making a miniature drone with the same faculties as bees to collect and deposit pollen from flowers. Now it's the turn of the bio-engineers at the startup... Draper to develop, in partnership with the University of Cambridge, an even crazier project: to create genetically modified dragonflies, remotely controlled like drones to perform their pollinating task.
This project, called DragonflEye, is based on the creation of genetically modified dragonflies on which scientists are bringing electronic equipment. Each dragonfly is equipped with a mini backpack powered by solar energy. This bag contains what the researchers call an "optrode", which is a kind of electrode connected to certain neurons in the dragonfly. The optrode acts as an optical interface that uses light either to stimulate neurons or to monitor the insect's neuronal activity. By introducing a special protein into the dragonfly that reacts according to the colours it is exposed to, researchers believe they can "remote-control" the insect and direct it precisely to selected targets. The researchers refer to this as "remote control" of the insect.
The stated objective of this research is to design cyborg dragonfly colonies that can be oriented to certain target plants in order to pollinate them. Less avowed objective: this research is of interest to the American army, which sees in it the seeds of hybrid forces for surveillance of the enemy.
The interest of this type of experimentation lies in the efficiency represented by the use of a live animal rather than the production of necessarily very sophisticated electronic objects. All objects need a power supply to function and their autonomy is de facto limited. With an insect such as a dragonfly, for example, there is no need for supplies. It is the insect that feeds itself and produces its own energy. Moreover, for engineers, this insect has an unrivalled "avionics". So why try to replace it? The only intervention is to implement a remotely controllable navigation system. This now seems to be possible with the work of Draper researchers.
However, beyond the technological prowess, these increasing innovations in the field of robot insects or cyborgs should not obscure the real issue of the decline of natural pollinators. Already in 2014, the NGO Greenpeace rebelled against this research: "The decline of bees is not science fiction, it is a reality. Replace them with robots? This is not our vision for the future of agriculture... It is urgent to act and face the real problem: pesticides are out of control. "It is true that since the 1990s, bees all over the world have been suffering from a decline that alarms specialists. Approximately 30 % of bee colonies disappear in France every year, so that, over the last ten years, 15,000 beekeepers have had to stop their activity. This disaster does not only concern honey production, but threatens our entire agricultural system. It is estimated that almost a third of the world's food supply depends on pollination by domestic bees or other pollinating insects.