Next Summer’s Big Swarm – BioBots

I am back after a two week hiatus in the country, where I purposely removed myself from all things robotic. The only buzz was from the occasional bee interrupting our outdoor lunch, which brings me to my first September post…

While the folks at Harvard are busy working on a robobee to save the hive, I think the more interesting summer inspired story is the robotic moth and his cousin the dreaded cockroach.

These insect creations are the brianchilds of North Carolina State University researchers that have developed methods for electronically manipulating the flight muscles of moths. The work opens the door to the development of remotely controlled moths, or “biobots,” for use in emergency response.

“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,” says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “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.”

This is not the first time that the mad Dr. Doolittle has manipulated living organisms, his previous biobot creations included remote controlled cockroaches, as show in an earlier CNN piece:

Bozkurt’s newest biobot, the moth, opens the door to not only disaster recovery uses, but the most powerful covert tool since the microphone bug found in Ambassador George Kennan’s office in 1952 (planted seven years earlier by the Russians).

According to Dr. Bozkurt, “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.”

But Bozkurt stresses that there’s a lot of work yet to be done to make moth biobots a viable tool.

“We now have a platform for collecting data about flight coordination,” Bozkurt says. “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.”

Today, Bozkurt is attaching electrodes while the moth is still in its cocoon. As the moth grows into caterpillar and undergoes metamorphosis as a winged adult the wires become fully integrated into the dipteran’s biological system. In his new published paperBozkurt’s research team stated that they now have a greater understanding of precisely how a moth coordinates its muscles during flight, so it will eventually be able to control them as a fully functional robotic insect.

I guess we will have to wait until next summer to see Bozkurt’s moths flying around our living room chandeliers (recording our every word)…

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