Pandemic Sensing Nanobot Fly – Explanation of Process

Research into Emerging Technology Trends

When I was first playing around with concepts for my design fiction, I came across several news releases relating to creating Nanowires that create electrical signals with mechanical actions [1] [3].  Additionally, I found a connection to similar technology which would allow nanoattennas to enable networks of tiny machines[2].

In thinking about the possible uses of these technologies I started to think small.  How could something small benefit the world? These technologies could allow small devices to be autonomous, since they would only need something to brush against them in order to create some electric charge.  The diagrams of the cross sections of the nanowires [3] reminded me of flu-viruses I had seen pictures of.  I began to envision a nanobot capable of charging itself in the field which could help find emerging viral outbreaks before they become epidemics or pandemics.

I read up on some of the recent outbreaks of bird flu in Asia. Most flu which humans contract, are slightly mutated viruses our bodies are familiar with.  Once in a while, a flu virus makes the jump from some animal, a bird or a pig, to a human.  Often these infections don’t last long, because the virus can’t propagate, but when it can they quickly spread through the human population and our bodies can’t deal with the new strain.

My concept revolved around the idea that, if we could sense these mutations in the flu virus at the point of contact, we could buy some time to study the virus and come up with some counter measures to defend ourselves from it.  At the very least we’d know that something new was happening as soon as it happened versus figuring it out months later once a pattern started to show in infections.

In thinking about insects on farms, I read another article [4], which presented research regarding the ability to stimulate fly brains with lasers, forcing them to mate for extended periods of time.  I realized that the act of mating would be a great way to use the distribution of flies within a farm to expand the sample area while at the same time keeping the nanobot charged when the flies mate with it.  So I came up with the Nanofly as a way of sensing diseases carried by animals that might pass to humans, with all the affordances both sexual and nonsexual that come with flies.



Image creation

Having a background in 3d modeling, I immediately began to think about what a 3d nanobot fly would look like.  My first iteration was very much a knockoff of an actual fly.  It looked too realistic.  When I tried compositing it into some images to explore the narrative argument within the image, the “real looking” fly made the image read wrong.  It looked like I was saying flies cause flu.  In addition there was no link back to the technology I was trying to convey.

So I remodeled the fly to be more “robotic” and mechanical.  This approach actually helped me to think about the visual logic of the image.  Chips and wires “say” robot more than metallic textures and ironman suits, so I realized I would probably need a diagram to annotate the parts and functions of the flybot due to its relative size and the way I modeled its form.

Composing the Image

I found several candidates for images to use as a background for the flybot.  At first I wanted to show it around farm animals, but for some reason this never quiet worked out.  Either the images didn’t work well as a visualization of pandemic flu, or they were overpowering the flybot.  I found some interesting images of people on a subway wearing masks.

These seemed promising since they told a narrative about flu outbreak and the invisibility of small microbes which fit well with the narrative I envisioned for the fly.

In the review of this first image with the class, the feedback I received was that the fly seemed terrifying, and that the size of the fly was out of scale for what it should be.  In addition to these I also began to think the image of the people in masks on the subway was the wrong way to go.  It was too far removed from the concept of early detection.  These people already knew about the flu and were nowhere near a farm.  So I started to think about how to visualize the fly in the scene at its relative size and using a background somewhere between the farm and the people contracting the flu.

I settled on an image I found of a street market with people preparing ducks for selling as food items.  I liked the flu masks from the original image, because the conveyed microscopic pandemic so well, so I composited some masks on the faces of the workers in the scene in order to get that back.  The scene was way too busy to allow the small fly to read easily though, and I didn’t like the flat color either.

I created a depth mask to help control an artificial depth blur applied with photoshop.  I also added a darker vignette around the edges to help focus attention to the area I was interested in highlighting.  This helped but the color of the image was still too noisy, so I did some tonal work to make the image mostly bluish green to give it some atmosphere.

When I added the callout of the fly magnified, I realized that it still needed some additional elements to convey the technology loop I was trying to show.  So I found an image of some naval officers at a control room and removed their insignia and anything that read as Navy.  Then I added CDC emblems to their uniforms and tinted the scene red, as if they were receiving a positive detection from the nanofly.  I added a flu virus at the bottom to complete the connection.


Second image for Annotation.

Because the first image was more about the concept of sensing microbes in the environment and less about showing the technology of the fly, I wanted to do a secondary image that showed off the flybot’s parts and also conveyed the network detection capabilities that come with the mating process.

I rendered a side image of the fly to show off the parts and then added it to a flat blue field in photoshop.  I created the callouts with selection tools and text.  Then I started playing with how to show the networking functions.  I first played with a monochromatic fly on flybot mating image but it seemed to flat.  So I ran some filters on the image of the fly’s mating to make them look more like an illustration as a starting point.

Then I masked top down view of another fly and repeated it many times with one red fly to show an infected member of the network.  This by itself would have probably been enough but I wanted to convey how this might greatly increase the detection area which the nanobot could cover.  So I found a line drawing of china and composited it into the shot with some concentric circles to show a detection range.


Image Credits.

Background: Dave Proffer: Saturday morning market near hotel.
Control Room:  US Navy 090722-N-4995K-037 Operations Specialist 1st Class Eric Rodriguez
Public Domain U.S. Navy
Navy Control Room Picture
Flu Virus: Image of the newly identified H1N1 influenza virus, taken in the CDC Influenza Laboratory.Public Domain CDC
Mating flies: Gmaza macrophotography blog
Unknown license


The NanoFly is a design fiction project. It is not real. However if you wish to discuss the possibilities of developing the technology, you may contact me at colinfizgig AT gmail Dot com