Robot-driving insect teaches scientists about scent tracking

moth driving robot© Dr. Noriyasu Ando / Institute of Physics

We have written about a lot of nature-inspired robots that use biomimicry in their design. Many of them replicated specific traits of animals or plants like a blind-cave fish's ability to navigate water with special nerve cells or a water-strider insect's ability to walk on water, while others just replicated the animal as a whole. But this is the first time we've seen an insect drive a robot.

The Institute of Physics along with the University of Tokyo built a small robot that could be driven by a male silkmoth in order to study its scent-tracking methods when it detects the pheromones of a potential mate. The moth's behaviors could lead to better autonomous robots with highly sensitive sensors for detecting environmental leaks and other types of contamination.

The Institute of Physics explains, "The male silkmoth was chosen as the ‘driver’ of the robot due to its characteristic ‘mating dance’ when reacting to the sex pheromone of the female. Once the male is stimulated by the pheromone it exhibits a distinctive walking pattern: straight-line and zigzagged walking consisting of several turns followed by a loop of more than 360°."

“The simple and robust odour tracking behaviour of the silkmoth allows us to analyse its neural mechanisms from the level of a single neuron to the moth’s overall behaviour. By creating an ‘artificial brain’ based on the knowledge of the silkmoth’s individual neurons and tracking behaviour, we hope to implement it into a mobile robot that will be equal to the insect-controlled robot developed in this study," said Dr. Noriyasu Ando, lead author of the research.

The scientists attached the moth to a free-moving ball made of polystyrene, much like a ball inside a computer mouse, located at the front of the small robot. The pheromones were at the opposite end of an 1800-millimeter wind tunnel, used to simulate the air flow that occurs in nature when the moth flaps its wings.

Fourteen silkmoths were used in the study and all of them were able to successfully guide the robot towards the pheromones, even when a turning bias was introduced a the moths had to adapt to steer the robot effectively.

You can watch a video of the moths driving the robots below.

Robot-driving insect teaches scientists about scent tracking
The male silkmoth's tracking methods could inspire autonomous robots that have better scent-tracking abilities for detecting environmental spills.

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