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Moths take tiny cars out for a spin

The silkmoth is led by pheromones to drive the vehicle to the target.

We thought we'd seen everything with driving dogs, but now silkmoths are muscling in. Maybe they don't know they're doing it, but researchers from the University of Tokyo have used the insects to steer tiny cars. The new research builds on previous research conducted by the team in 2013, and was published last month in the JoVE Video Journal.

The methodology taps into how moths sense the world around them: the sensitive scent receptors on their antennae. The researchers placed a target scented with female silkworm moth pheromones, then observed the tethered male moths driving the car toward that target.

How does a moth drive a car with no hands? With an air-supported trackball, much like a mouse trackball. As the moth crawls around on the ball toward the scented target, optical sensors track the ball's movement and translate that into steering, moving the car in the same direction.

In seven trials with seven different drivers, the moths consistently drove toward the target, although they arrived a little more slowly than moths that walked to the target on their own feet, an average of two seconds.

What's the point? A scent-detecting robot could be employed in a variety of tasks, such as the detection of drugs or explosives, or even disaster victims. Currently, we rely on dogs for such tasks, but a robot controlled by an insect provides a prototype for a system based on insect behaviour.

"The insect-controlled robot has two major directions for future applications. The first direction is for engineering. As an autonomous robot controlled by the insect sensory-motor system, the insect-controlled robot will be a reference for mobile robots implemented with biological models," the study reads.

"The other major direction is definitely for biology. The insect-controlled robot can be regarded as a closed-loop experimental platform. In addition, robotic manipulation, a non-invasive way to alter the insect's sensory-motor relationship, will be further applied to investigate how the small insect brain can respond, learn, and adapt to new circumstances."