Return of the Robo-Insects

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have recently equipped moths with robotic skeletons. Why on earth would anyone do this? Not to create a tiny army of super-moths, but rather to glean clues into how the excellent olfactory system of moths operate, and apply those principles to robotics.

By better understanding how moths use tracking behaviors to find a scent, the scientists hope to learn how to impart a similar set of behaviors to robots. Giving a sense of smell to robots would be most useful in cases of environmental or chemical monitoring—detecting chemical spells for example. Such robots could traverse a building or roam outside, firing off an alert when it senses a toxin or pollutant above a certain threshold.

For the Tokyo experiment, 14 male silkmoths were fixed to a two-wheeled robot, one at a time. The males were attracted to a female moth pheromone placed nearby. As they walked, their feet steered a track ball that relayed movement to the mobile machine. The moths were able to learn how to operate the device and even compensate for inconsistencies; for example, the moths were still able to steer when faced with a wind current on one side of the machine. According to the University of Tokyo researchers in their paper:

“Further evaluations of the insect-controlled robot will provide a ‘blueprint’ for biomimetic robots and strongly promote the field of biomimetics.”

Check out a video of the moths in action below:


This isn’t the first time insects have been subject to our robotic explorations. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded projects in the past to create cyborg insects.

Rather than detect potential toxins, these kinds of robo-insects could someday be used for discreet military surveillance or search-and-rescue missions. It’s enormously difficult to create tiny flying robots that have the onboard power to do anything useful, because the smaller you get the harder it is to supply power to a robot. So some researchers have turned to developing interfaces that control insects’ neurological systems as a solution.

At the University of California Berkeley, scientists developed a hybrid beetle whose movements are manipulated by a human controller. Other scientists have experimented with controlling a hissing cockroach—for details, check out this paper from iBionics: “Line Following Terrestrial Insect Biobots” (pdf).

New Scientist featured a great primer video on cyborg insects a few years ago, viewable below.


Are there any sf stories you’ve come across that feature robot-equipped insects? Please share in the comments below!

H/T: NPR and Extreme Tech

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