Why Drones And Fighter-Jets Cannot Compare With The Dragonfly

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Riyaz Shaik / 7MB
When it comes to aviation, dragonflies are better than F15 fighter jets. But are humans creating them as killer robots?

Does a dragonfly have anything in common with an F-15 fighter jet? The answer is yes; a lot more than one would think.

An object turning at a high speed puts it under tremendous stress. The combined forces acting upon it are measured in terms of g-force. When you make a 4 G turn, your body experiences four times its weight upon itself. It’s a choking, stifling sensation; the reason many pilots pass out during high-speed manoeuvres.

At a high-speed turn performed in mid-air, both a dragonfly and an F-15 can handle up to nine times their weight in g-forces. It’s the maximum limit for even the most advanced fighter-aircraft today, but dragonflies have been pulling it off since before the dinosaurs. For about 300 million years, they have been the pinnacle of nature’s own aeronautical evolution.

The similarities don’t end there. Both the dragonfly and the F-15 are top-performers when it comes to hunting their prey. The F-15 has a stellar record in air-to-air combat, with 100 victories and no losses. But even 40 years of modern aerial warfare cannot compare with the trials of Nature’s own battlefield; where dragonflies score a 95 percent chance of catching their prey. That is four times more than that of the average lion.

Though they have no teeth, a dragonfly’s mandibles are deadly for its prey. Humans need not fear as these insects don’t bite you unless you mishandle them.

Besides this, there is also the visual flair – the dragonfly’s head looks like a futuristic fighter pilot’s helmet. This too fulfils a strategic purpose; when airborne, one must be completely aware of one’s surroundings. For pilots of the latest F-35 stealth fighter, this meant investing in a $400,000 helmet that provided sensory fusion and 360-degree field coverage through a network of cameras.

For dragonflies, it meant having a head that was mostly eyes. The best way to identify a dragonfly (ie a member of the family Odonata) is the proportion of the eyes to its head, giving it near-360 degree coverage. And like the case of the F-35, the dragonfly has a dedicated suite for handling all this visual data; 80 percent of its brainpower goes towards processing visual information.

The reason dragonflies have so much in common with the best fighter jets is that they exemplify the best traits of a being designed for the sky. Each of their four wings is powered by a separate muscle, giving them tremendous mid-air agility. They can fly forwards, backwards, up, down, and hover in position – all in the blink of an eye. Combined with their other traits, not even mankind’s best aircraft can compete.

Role in the environment

There are over 560 species of dragonfly in India. Many of these remain unidentified as the differences are too subtle to spot for the amateur naturalist. But dragonflies have been known in India for ages; they are even mentioned in the Sangam literature.

They are commonly found in wetlands, as the larvae are incubated in water. This has posed a challenge for India’s dragonflies, as up to a third of the country’s wetlands have either been lost or severely degraded.

The first dragonfly to be declared as endangered in India was the Epiophlebia laidlawi or Himalayan reliect dragonfly. It survives in the Eastern ranges of the Himalayas in India and Nepal – and is listed as Near Threatened today by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The loss of the dragonflies habitats has reduced their numbers. Along with declines in frog, toads and water spider populations. This has led to an increase in mosquito proliferation. The spread of diseases like Dengue and Malaria are the natural outcome of mosquitoes with few predators.

Dragonflies are also natural predators of many of the pests that most damage farmers crops. In Texas, farmers deploy insects like dragonflies to take on the more dangerous pests that can ruin entire crops.

As with all living beings, the dragonfly is primarily concerned with mating. This is where the insect demonstrates some noticeable – and frighteningly human – traits. Patriarchy is real and male dragonflies will aggressively pursue their females, grabbing onto them and refusing to let go. Females may mate with multiple males, but it’s usually only the last one who fertilizes her eggs. To that extent, the males may ‘guard’ a female from other males and may even scoop out their competitor’s sperm from her genitals with their hooks.

Some species, like Calopteryz splendens, are hyper-aggressive. They will attack couples in the act of mating and attempt to steal the show, or rape females while they warm in the sun. They even go after immature mates. For them, sex is a biting and scratching affair and the females know that – they even try to escape. Some even fake their own deaths to get away.

If you’re unsure of whether to like dragonflies after this, consider yourself lucky that we live in the 21st century. During the Palezoic era, 544 to 245 million years ago, the earth’s oxygen levels were 50 percent more than they are today. The effect of this was that dragonflies were far larger – with wingspans up to two feet! Scientists attempting to reproduce this atmosphere were able to grow larger dragonflies simply by increasing the oxygen levels.

Mankind is eagerly studying the dragonfly to learn and replicate its secrets. Students have been working on designing drones along the lines of a dragonfly. Some projects have studied whether dragonfly wings can be used as a model for micro-drones.

But some scientists have gone further – crafting cyborg dragonflies. Through genetic modification, they have implanted technology into the dragonfly’s brains that allow them to be controlled – and flown – remotely. The dragonfly’s even carry a small backpack that collects data. The idea is that this could be used to create neural interfaces for paraplegics to walk again – but in matters of man and science, there is always a threat of building killer insectoid robots.

There is a great degree of respect to be had for the dragonfly, considering their ancient roots and abilities as a predator. They’ve survived numerous extinction events that killed the dinosaurs and many more species. Hopefully, they will also be able to survive the curiosity and recklessness of man.

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