Scientists have developed a method to control the flight of moths using electrodes; a technique they believe could be used to perform wide-ranging search-and-rescue operations in disaster situations.
By attaching tiny electrodes, the scientists can also monitor the signals moths use to control their flight muscles – known as electromyographic signals – in a bid to better understand how the insects navigate through the air.
“We want to know whether we can control the movement of moths for use in applications such as search-and-rescue operations,” said Dr Alper Bozkurt, study co-author and North Carolina State University assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.
“The idea would be to attach sensors to moths in order to create a flexible, aerial sensor network that can identify survivors or public health hazards in the wake of a disaster.”
The attachment process starts when the moth is in the pupal stage, where it is cocooned and nearing the time to emerge. At this stage the scientists surgically attach electrodes to its back, which can be used to monitor and map the electrical signals it uses to control its muscles.
This is vital because before moths can be effectively controlled for search and rescue, the scientist need to have an accurate understanding of the way they move their wings.
“By watching how the moth uses its wings to steer while in flight, and matching those movements with their corresponding electromyographic signals, we’re getting a much better understanding of how moths manoeuvre through the air,” said Bozkurt.
In order to accurate measure the moth’s movements, the scientists have taken the bizarre step of creating a wireless hovering platform that surrounds the implanted moth while it flies.
Resembling a tiny fairground ride, the levitating platform is suspended using electromagnets while it collects key flight data as the moth moves around.
As unorthodox as the research is, the scientists are confident that it will allow them to develop a control system for the moths.
“We’re optimistic that this information will help us develop technologies to remotely control the movements of moths in flight,” Bozkurt said. “That’s essential to the overarching goal of creating biobots that can be part of a cyberphysical sensor network.”
There is much to be done, however, before a tiny moth search-and-rescue team can be deployed.
“We now have a platform for collecting data about flight coordination,” Bozkurt said. “Next steps include developing an automated system to explore and fine-tune parameters for controlling moth flight, further miniaturising the technology and testing the technology in free-flying moths.”