robot controlled by silkworm moth
February 6, 2013

Japanese Scientists Use Insect To Control Small Robot

[Watch Video: A Robot Being Driven By A Moth]

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Robots have been used to handle a number of dirty chores for human beings in the past, some of which include looking for and cleaning environmental spills. Robotic engineers have also looked towards other animals and insects for inspiration when building out these autonomous machines.

Tokyo researchers have now brought these two elements together in a new study published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

Lead author of the research, Dr Noriyasu Ando, hopes that what the team learns from observing the patterns of their moth robot driver can help them build autonomous robots to seek out environmental spills.

Male moths have been tasked with “driving” this small robot, guiding it along with their feet. The male moths are placed on top of a track ball, similar to that found in a computer mouse. As the moth walks, he spins the ball which in turn directs the robot.

The researchers used pheromones from female moths in order to motivate the male moths to move forward. According to Dr. Ando, the male silkworm moth has a distinctive walking pattern when it detects a mate, first walking in a straight line, zigzagging, making several turns, followed by a final 360 degree loop.

By observing and recording these paths, Dr. Ando and team hope they´ll be able to teach a robot to act in the same way.

“The simple and robust odor tracking behavior of the silkmoth allows us to analyze its neural mechanisms from the level of a single neuron to the moth´s overall behavior, (sic)” said Dr. Ando in a statement.

“By creating an ℠artificial brain´ based on the knowledge of the silkmoth´s individual neurons and tracking behavior, we hope to implement it into a mobile robot that will be equal to the insect-controlled robot developed in this study,” he added.

Dr. Ando and team dropped a bit of female moth pheromone at the opposite end of the track from the moth-driven robot. These researchers then placed two tiny fans in front of the pheromones in order to blow the scent towards the male moth. These fans replicated the beating of the female´s wings.

Altogether, these researchers placed 14 male moths in the driver´s seat of this robot. Each one of them were able to successfully drive the motorized robot to the source of the pheromone, even in adverse conditions. To really put these moths to the test, the researchers placed them in “extraordinary situations” to see if the moths could adapt to these changes.

To create such an extraordinary situation, the researchers changed the power of one of the motors on the robot, thereby introducing a turning bias. Despite these hindrances, the moths were able to find their way to the source of the pheromone.

“The turning bias in our study is analogous to a situation in which we try to ride unbalanced bicycles,” said Dr. Ando. “We need training to ride such bicycles smoothly but the silkmoth overcomes the situation with only simple and fast sensory-motor feedbacks.”

Dr. Ando also mentioned that it is important to build these future robots with a short response time when chemicals and odors are detected.

“Most chemical sensors, such as semiconductor sensors, have a slow recovery time and are not able to detect the temporal dynamics of odors as insects do. Our results will be an important indication for the selection of sensors and models when we apply the insect sensory-motor system to artificial systems,” said Dr. Ando.