Moths as drones: Researchers harness insects to airdrop environmental sensors

Small, dangerous spaces are no match for a wily moth wearing a tiny sensor.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

A moth carries a tiny lightweight sensor on its back.

Mark Stone/University of Washington

Moths aren't known as beasts of burden, but a new super lightweight sensor they can carry on their backs might change that.

A team of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) developed a sensor that weighs 98 milligrams (one tenth the weight of a jellybean) and can survive a six-story fall. The sensors are designed to last three years and collect and wirelessly transmit environmental data like temperature or humidity. 

The tough little sensors can be delivered by dainty drones or carried on the backs of insects. A video released by UW shows both of these options in action. The hawkmoth shown in the footage is a large species of moth and the sensor fits easily on its back.

"This is the first time anyone has shown that sensors can be released from tiny drones or insects such as moths, which can traverse through narrow spaces better than any drone and sustain much longer flights," said Shyam Gollakota, co-author of a paper on the sensors presented last month at the MobiCom 2020 conference on mobile computing.

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The sensors can also be airdropped by a very small drone.

Mark Stone/University of Washington

The team activates a mechanical release via Bluetooth to instruct the battery-powered sensor to take a dive for the ground. It's an ideal delivery method for remote, small or dangerous locations.

If you've ever had a moth unexpectedly pop out at you, you know they can navigate in tight spaces and reach areas even small drones might have trouble getting to. This sensor design gives researchers options: tiny drones when it makes sense, moths when they're needed.

While it may be hard to instruct moths exactly where to go, the idea is to use multiple sensors to create a network across a farm, forest or other study area. Future sensor designs could use solar power.

Sensor-dropping moths are the latest innovation in a field that's exploring how insects can help researchers. The same UW team behind the moth work previously developed a tiny panoramic camera that could be carried on the back of a beetle. We've also witnessed fruit flies and bees wearing sensors.

The moths represent the next step since they don't just wear the sensors as backpacks. They become delivery vehicles, like little winged UPS trucks.