Nav: Home

What do dragonflies teach us about missile defense?

July 24, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Be grateful you're not on a dragonfly's diet. You might be a fruit fly or maybe a mosquito, but it really wouldn't matter the moment you look back and see four powerful wings pounding through the air after you. You fly for your life, weaving evasively, but the dragonfly somehow tracks you with seemingly instant reflexes. For a moment, you think you've gotten away, just as it closes in swiftly from below for the kill.

Then, as the dinosaur-era predator claws into you with its spiny legs and drags you into its jaws midair, you might wonder to yourself, "How did it catch me with such a tiny brain and no depth perception?"

Sandia National Laboratories is homing in on the answer with research showing how dragonfly brains might be wired to be extremely efficient at calculating complex trajectories.

In recent computer simulations, faux dragonflies in a simplified virtual environment successfully caught their prey using computer algorithms designed to mimic the way a dragonfly processes visual information while hunting. The positive test results show the programming is fundamentally a sound model.

The Sandia research is examining whether dragonfly-inspired computing could improve missile defense systems, which have the similar task of intercepting an object in flight, by making on-board computers smaller without sacrificing speed or accuracy. Dragonflies catch 95% of their prey, crowning them one of the top predators int he world.

Computational neuroscientist Frances Chance, who developed the algorithms, is presenting her research this week at the International Conference on Neuromorphic Systems in Knoxville, Tennessee. Earlier this month, she presented at the Annual Meeting of the Organization for Computational Neurosciences in Barcelona, Spain.

Research replicates dragonfly's highly efficient brain

Chance specializes in replicating biological neural networks -- brains, basically -- which require less energy and are better at learning and adapting than computers. Her studies focus on neurons, which are cells that send information through the nervous system.

"I try to predict how neurons are wired in the brain and understand what kinds of computations those neurons are doing, based on what we know about the behavior of the animal or what we know about the neural responses," she said.

For example, a dragonfly's reaction time to a maneuvering prey is a mere 50 milliseconds. A human blink takes about 300 milliseconds. Fifty milliseconds is only enough time for information to cross about three neurons. In other words, to keep up with a dragonfly, an artificial neural network needs to be done processing information after only three steps -- though, because brains fire lots of signals at once, each step may involve many calculations running at the same time.

Faster, lighter computing for missile defense

Missile defense systems rely on established intercept techniques that are, relatively speaking, computation-heavy. But rethinking those strategies using highly efficient dragonflies as a model could potentially:
  • Shrink the size, weight and power needs of onboard computers. This would allow interceptors to be smaller and lighter, and therefore more maneuverable.
  • Reveal new ways to intercept maneuvering targets such as hypersonic weapons, which follow less-predictable trajectories than ballistic missiles.
  • Reveal new ways to home in on a target with less sophisticated sensors than are currently used.
Dragonflies and missiles move at vastly different speeds, so it's unknown how well this research will ultimately translate to missile defense. But developing a computational model of a dragonfly brain also could have long-term benefits for machine learning and artificial intelligence.

AI is used throughout wide-ranging industries, from self-driving transportation to prescription drug development. These fields stand to gain from highly efficient methods for constructing fast solutions to complex problems. Ongoing research at Sandia is refining Chance's algorithms and determining where they're most applicable.
-end-
Her research is funded by Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory operated by National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc., for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia Labs has major research and development responsibilities in nuclear deterrence, global security, defense, energy technologies and economic competitiveness, with main facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Livermore, California.

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories

Related Neurons Articles:

New tool to identify and control neurons
One of the big challenges in the Neuroscience field is to understand how connections and communications trigger our behavior.
Neurons that regenerate, neurons that die
In a new study published in Neuron, investigators report on a transcription factor that they have found that can help certain neurons regenerate, while simultaneously killing others.
How neurons use crowdsourcing to make decisions
When many individual neurons collect data, how do they reach a unanimous decision?
Neurons can learn temporal patterns
Individual neurons can learn not only single responses to a particular signal, but also a series of reactions at precisely timed intervals.
A turbo engine for tracing neurons
Putting a turbo engine into an old car gives it an entirely new life -- suddenly it can go further, faster.
More Neurons News and Neurons Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#534 Bacteria are Coming for Your OJ
What makes breakfast, breakfast? Well, according to every movie and TV show we've ever seen, a big glass of orange juice is basically required. But our morning grapefruit might be in danger. Why? Citrus greening, a bacteria carried by a bug, has infected 90% of the citrus groves in Florida. It's coming for your OJ. We'll talk with University of Maryland plant virologist Anne Simon about ways to stop the citrus killer, and with science writer and journalist Maryn McKenna about why throwing antibiotics at the problem is probably not the solution. Related links: A Review of the Citrus Greening...