Researchers at the University of Tokyo have figured out that they can hook up moths to robotic vehicles, and get the flying insects to drive them. Not only did they get the moths to drive the vehicles, but they got them to drive the vehicles to the intended targets.
NPR ran a story on the paper about the experiment. Its abstract goes like this:
The reconstruction of mechanisms behind odour-tracking behaviours of animals is expected to enable the development of biomimetic robots capable of adaptive behaviour and effectively locating odour sources. However, because the behavioural mechanisms of animals have not been extensively studied, their behavioural capabilities cannot be verified.
In this study, we have employed a mobile robot driven by a genuine insect (insect-controlled robot) to evaluate the behavioural capabilities of a biological system implemented in an artificial system. We used a male silkmoth as the ‘driver’ and investigated its behavioural capabilities to imposed perturbations during odour tracking. When we manipulated the robot to induce the turning bias, it located the odour source by compensatory turning of the on-board moth. Shifting of the orientation paths to the odour plume boundaries and decreased orientation ability caused by covering the visual field suggested that the moth steered with bilateral olfaction and vision to overcome the bias. An evaluation of the time delays of the moth and robot movements suggested an acceptable range for sensory-motor processing when the insect system was directly applied to artificial systems. Further evaluations of the insect-controlled robot will provide a ‘blueprint’ for biomimetic robots and strongly promote the field of biomimetics.
The story received a bit of attention back in February, when the video was released, but is receiving some more this week, thanks to the NPR report.