By Thomas Scott
Professor Robert Olberg finds that dragonflies react within a hundred milliseconds
eyes do,” Olberg explained.
He is able to probe these neurons using microelectrodes that are inserted using a sensitive apparatus that, among other things, consists of micromanipulators as well as a high speed camera to document the captive dragonfly’s movements.
The micromanipulators allow Olberg to “put microelectrodes into individual neurons.”
The tip of the microelectrode is smaller than a wavelength of visible light, which means that Olberg is, in effect, flying blind when he attempts to insert an electrode into a neuron.
He knows his effort has been met with success when nerve impulses are finally shown “on a computer and on an oscilloscope.”
Further affirmation comes in the form of audio output, which Olberg plays over a set of speakers.
Though Olberg received a National Science Foundation grant, his work has been funded primarily by the Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) for the last six to seven years he said.
The AFOSR isn’t interested in any direct applications of Olberg’s research; instead, the AFOSR’s “mandate is to fund only pure research,” said Olberg.
However, Olberg speculates that more insight into the nervous systems of dragonflies and other insects could have ramifications for the field of biomimetics.
Researchers involved in the field of biomimetics look to nature for inspiration in order to create new innovations in fields such as robotics.
“Insect nervous systems have been really important for robotics,” Olberg explained. This is because “they are run by a relatively small number of elements” he continued.
“Evolution has solved these problems over hundreds of millions of years,” remarked Olberg.
While the prospects and possibilities for Olberg’s research are unknown, his studies show how a field like life science can have implications on computing and developing technologies.