Good for Science, Bad for Your Nightmares: Moths That Drive Robots

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The next generation of robots may work like moths to a flame pheromone.

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Institute of Physics/YouTube

A group of silkworm moths, coached by researchers at the University of Tokyo, just took a driving test. Instead of their moms' old minivans, however, they were given another machine: a robot. 

The idea of all this wasn't so much to test the robomoths' driving capabilities -- moths are notoriously aggressive drivers, after all, and their tendency to leave their turn signals on for miles on end is well-documented -- but rather to test the creatures' ingrained tracking behaviors. The idea from there was to (potentially) apply those natural impulses to man-made robots. Moths track smells effortlessly; for a robot, though, that kind of impulse is difficult to engineer. But an autonomous device that is capable of sensing smells and then tracking them to their sources -- say, to identify environmental spills and leaks -- could prove hugely valuable.

So researchers made a makeshift robot with a styrofoam ball that functions, effectively, like a trackball mouse. They then attached moths to the device (this was, for the moths, the ostensibly the worst part of the test), converting the robot into a comically large entomological exoskeleton. 

The moths were then let loose.

Their destination? Lady moths. Or, in this case, a female sex pheromone that acted as a fairly cruel simulation of an actual lady moth -- a smell whose source was located at the opposite end of a simple obstacle course. As the moth walked toward the pheromone, the foam ball rolled accordingly, and sensors -- attached to the robot's drive motors -- fired off signals according to those movements.

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In all, fourteen male silkmoths were tested -- and each one demonstrated an uncanny ability to steer the robot to its target. Which was a feat made more remarkable by the fact that the researchers, as the video below makes clear, introduced a turning bias into the experiment by engineering one of the robot motors to be stronger than the other -- making it veer to the side (imagine your car's alignment being out of whack). And yet the moths, in hot pursuit of the "females," still persevered. Regardless of the impediment, they made it to their targets -- and quickly, too.

Which looked something like this:

This was, in all, a little bit comical and also a little bit terrifying: moths, driving robots! As Extreme Tech's Sebastian Anthony points out, insectoid automatons are the stuff of terrible nightmares. But the mothanoid robot is, mostly and most importantly, a step forward for science. The results of the experiment were just published in the excellently named journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, and they suggest that robots of the future may well be equipped not just with sight, but with smell. With an assist from some randy insects. "Most chemical sensors, such as semiconductor sensors, have a slow recovery time and are not able to detect the temporal dynamics of odours as insects do," Noriyasu Ando, the lead author of the research, put it. "Our results will be an important indication for the selection of sensors and models when we apply the insect sensory-motor system to artificial systems."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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