Local scientists create fly-catching robot that may help speed research

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Friday, August 28, 2015
Stanford scientists create fly-catching robot that may help speed research
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A group of Stanford scientists have created a robotic microscope to study fruit flies hoping it will help them speed up research into human diseases.

STANFORD, Calif. (KGO) -- Bay area researchers have made a new breakthrough in the robot revolution and if you happen to be the subject of their research, you're in for a close encounter of the scientific kind.

If you were to switch places with one of the fruit fly test subjects you might feel like the target of an alien abduction.

First comes the infra-red light, then the beam from the mother ship locks on. "When the fly becomes stationary the robot will go in and pick up the fly with this vacuum based picker," professor Mark Schnitzer, Ph.D., said.

And next thing you know, you're being probed by superior beings who want to study your brain, which now goes on with robotic precision at Schnitzer's lab at Stanford. "This robot system is actually one piece of a larger research program that we're pursuing," he says.

First it helps to understand that fruit flies are one of the most useful creatures in science. With a physiology that's given researchers a window into everything from genomics to neural diseases like Parkinson's. But to speed the pace of experiments dramatically, Schnitzer and his team designed the automated, robotic, fruit fly, microscope. "The flies have to be tracked in real time, so images have to be acquired on a camera that's mounted on the robot," he said.

That's coupled with visual recognition software that's powerful enough to distinguish the best candidates down to the most intimate detail. "The robot can distinguish male and female by using those features," researcher assistant Cheng Huang, Ph.D., said.

The fly-scope took several years to build and its vacuum plucker is gentle enough to allow researchers to conduct experiments without harming the flies. But Schnitzer's team believes it's real power will be in speeding up research into human diseases, by capturing a fleeting scientific opportunity.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.