Air Force Envisions Insect-Sized Vehicles, Funds a “Virtual Reality Tunnel for Fruit Flies”

Sometimes, basic science funded by the military is a bit out there. Researchers are subjecting fruit flies to “virtual reality tunnels,” which the Air Force thinks might help inspire insect-sized military vehicles.

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In a story that is surreal on so many levels, the Air Force is funding research involving fruit flies and virtual reality tunnels, with an eye toward building “future insect-sized vehicles for the military.”

Andrew Straw, a Caltech scientist who studies neurons and behavior, is leading the research, supported by an Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant. In order to better understand how fruit flies navigate, Straw basically forces the insects to play an immersive videogame of sorts. His lab has designed a virtual reality environment for the flies, giving him complete control over the visual stimuli they’re exposed to. He and his fellow researchers also developed a tracking system that locates a fly in 3-D “nearly instantaneously.” By tossing the fruit flies in the VR tunnel, controlling what the flies see, and tracking them precisely, Straw has an unprecedented sense of how the flies use visual cues to navigate.

What he found was surprising. Previously, it had been thought that flies measured motion beneath them to regulate their height. Straw’s team, by contrast, has found that horizontal edges are the most important cue the flies use.

The arrow drawn between this research and applicable military technology is something of a fuzzy and indistinct one–but that’s how basic science research works. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research declares as its mission “to discover, shape, and champion basic science that profoundly impacts the future Air Force.” By investigating how a tiny creature quickly translates visual information into regulated flight, Straw’s work “could inspire new approaches to flight stabilization and navigation in future insect-sized vehicles for the military,” AFOSR program manager Willard Larkin said.

So in a small but significant way, those videogame-playing fruit flies are the forefathers of a paranoia-inducing future where that fly buzzing around your ear could actually be a surveillance drone.

[Image: Flickr user deltamike]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.