Cyborg Moths Can Be Controlled Mid-Flight by Scientists

Researchers have designed a method to control moths in flight by implanting electrodes.

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Aug 20 2014, 7:35pm

Image: North Carolina State University

Moths are way cooler than butterflies for a lot of reasons. For one, they're fuzzier and hence cuter. Also, they can be implanted with electrodes and controlled en masse to surveil swaths of land for people in trouble like a fleet of insectoid cyborg Lassie clones.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed an approach to creating cyborg moths that can be remotely controlled by implanting electrodes deep into their indirect flight muscles during the pupal stage, while they're still in the cocoon. That way, the muscle fibers of the developing moths grow around and with the electrodes, resulting in a flying bug that can be controlled with electrical stimulation after it emerges.

The end goal, the researchers say, is to develop a fleet of moths that could be useful in rescue scenarios.

"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," Dr. Alper Bozkurt, co-author of the study, published in the Journal of Visualized Experimentssaid in a statement. "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."

To achieve this futuristic vision, the researchers are currently investigating how moths can be controlled in large numbers. Besides allowing the moths' flight to be controlled, the embedded electrodes also allow for electromyographic (EMG) signals—the electrical signals given off by muscle activity—to be monitored mid-flight. 

Bozkurt and his colleagues stuck a test moth inside a magnetically levitated test chamber, so as not to disturb or impede the moth's flight. Then, they commanded the moth to rotate itself in mid-air, while they collected the EMG data.

"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 maneuver through the air," Bozkurt said.

So, that's great. But so far, the moths do not have cameras attached to them, which you'd presumably need in order to have them be useful for search-and-rescue (or surveillance).

The North Carolina State team's research is the latest in a string of recent attempts to hack insects to do our bidding. For instance, you can hack a cockroach and control it with your smartphone for under one hundred dollars. Previous studies have put moths at the helm of tiny robot cars to allow researchers to follow them to the source of their pheromones.

Bozkurt and his colleagues are confident that their contribution to the burgeoning field of cyborg bugs is an important step towards creating a fleet of surveillance moths, which is quite a terrifying thought. 

Of course, there is much work to be done.

"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 miniaturizing the technology, and testing the technology in free-flying moths."

And, of course, the cameras.

The idea of thousands of cyborg moths with electrodes protruding from their thoraxes surveilling us from above is equally terrifying and cool as all hell, but hey, that's the future for you.