Cyborg Moths Are Coming, but Don’t Worry—They’re Here to Help Us

Scientists are developing technology to create swarms of cybernetic insects that can be dispatched on search and rescue missions.

Battlestar Galactica? No, just a cybernetic moth suspended in midair by electromagnets. (Photo: Courtesy Alper Bozkurt)

Aug 21, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

If we ever have to start worrying about killer robots, cyborg moths may come to the rescue.

Yes, cyborg moths are a thing. Or they will be soon, if scientists at North Carolina State University keep pushing the bounds of robotics research. In a paper published in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, describes how his team developed a technique for inserting electrodes into moths when the insects are in the pupal stage.

“The implants emerge with the insect where the development of tissue around the electronics during pupal development results in a bioelectrically and biomechanically enhanced tissue interface,” Bozkurt wrote.

In other words, remote-controlled moths.

“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,” Bozkurt said 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.”

Bozkurt could not be reached for comment. But to use what he calls “biobots” for such missions would presumably require attaching tiny video cameras to the insects.

In any event, it will be some time before swarms of cyborg moths fill the skies. For now, the researchers are using their electronically enhanced moths to study how the insects fly.

In a contraption that resembles the interior of a Cylon Basestar on Battlestar Galactica, the moths are hooked up to a platform that uses electromagnets to levitate in midair so the insects can move their wings. As the video below shows, the electrodes collect data on electromyographic signals, which are the electrical impulses that control the moth’s wing muscles during flight. Encircling the platform is a wall of LEDs, which flash to indicate the direction of the moth’s wing movements.

“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.

“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.”

The next step, according to Bozkurt, is to shrink the technology so it can be tested on free-flying moths.

Meanwhile, scientists at Harvard University are developing tiny robots that mimic the behavior of bees.

Hello, Skynet.