Cyborg moths could act like living drones in search and rescue

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By Sharon Gaudin, Computerworld | August 22nd, 2014

Scientists wire live moths to learn how to control their muscles, flight.

By electronically manipulating the flight muscles of moths, scientists are one step closer to creating biobots that could fly over a disaster area and spot survivors or hazards.

“In the big picture, we want to know whether we can control the movement of moths for use in applications, such as search and rescue operations,” said Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University. “”The idea would be to attach sensors to moths in order to create a flexible, aerial sensor network.”

Bozkurt, working with Amit Lal of Cornell University, attached tiny electrodes to the moth’s muscle groups that are responsible for its flight. With those electrodes in place, the scientists are able to monitor the electrical signals the moth uses during flight to tell those muscles what to do.

Scientists at NC State University have attached electrodes to a moth to create a biobot, or robotic creature that might one day aid with search and rescue. (Video: iBionicSlab)

The moth, according to NC State, is connected to a wireless network that collects those electrical signals as the moth moves its wings. To give the moth freedom to turn left and right, the entire platform levitates, suspended in mid-air by electromagnets.

By studying the electrical signals needed to manipulate the moth’s wings and to guide its movements through the air, researchers will be able to understand how one day they could control the moth’s flight.

“By watching how the moth uses its wings to steer while in flight, and matching those movements with their corresponding [electronic] signals, we’re getting a much better understanding of how moths maneuver through the air,” Bozkurt said. “We’re optimistic that this information will help us develop technologies to remotely control the movements of moths in flight. That’s essential to the overarching goal of creating biobots that can be part of a cyberphysical sensor network.”

For several years, scientists have been working to figure out how to meld biology with computers. Late in 2007, after building a robot guided by the brain and eyes of a moth, a professor at the University of Arizona said that by 2017 to 2022, hybrid computers will be used to run a combination of technology and living organic tissue.

Two years ago, scientists at Northwestern University reported that they had developed a device that could send messages from the brain directly to muscles — skipping over the spinal cord — and enable a paralyzed hand to move.