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Watch This Horny Moth Drive a Robotic Car

Moth-powered robotics could come to replace drug sniffing dogs.

In 2013, a team of researchers at the University of Tokyo demonstrated that they could use a moth-controlled robot to steer the vehicle toward the source of a particular scent. This original proof of concept was a resounding success and the moth was able to steer the robot toward the scent marker with high degrees of precision even when subjected to various handicaps, such as a blocked field of vision or a turning bias which would pull the robot a little off course.

Now, this same team of researchers have refined their moth-controlled vehicle in a development that the researchers hope will lead to the creation of biomimetic robots that are capable of detecting odors and locating their origin.

As detailed in a paper published in December in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, the University of Tokyo team used a male silkmoth to pilot a small robotic car toward the source of a scent (in this case, the sex pheromone of a female silkmoth). The vehicle consists of a male silkmoth tethered to the cockpit, which walks on a "treadmill" (an air-supported Styrofoam ball) in response to the pheromones wafting through two odor intake tubes.

The experiment takes place in a sort of wind-tunnel, where a fan blows the female sex hormone toward the moth at a wind-speed of .7 meters per second, or about the speed that a female silkmoth might beat her wings in nature. Using its odor-tracking antennae, the male silkmoth localizes the scent and begins walking toward it. Optical sensors inside the vehicle track the movement of the ball that the moth is walking on and use that movement to steer the vehicle.

The researchers ran the experiment with seven different moths and compared the results to 10 other silkworm moths that could walk freely in the wind tunnel. Remarkably, the moths piloting the vehicle arrived at the source of the scent just 2 seconds slower than their free-walking counterparts on average.

The researchers hope their work will lead to better bio-inspired olfactory systems in robots. It is one of the initial steps toward an autonomous robot that is capable of detecting a scent and localizing its source. This could result in robots that outperform dogs and other animals in tasks like detecting drugs or explosives.