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Remote-Controlled Moths Are Coming ... to the Rescue?

Scientists can now control the movement of "biobot" moths—and the applications could go far beyond saving your sweaters.  

Shutterstock/Dmitry Syshchikov

Say that you’re out hiking alone, off the beaten trail. You slowly realize you've become lost. What’s worse, the sun is setting, the temperature is beginning to drop, and your food and water supplies are nearly exhausted. You need help.

A hiker in this situation would likely be thrilled to encounter a band of rescuers trained to locate his or her position. But what if you were found by a swarm of supermoths instead of a human search party?

Scientists from North Carolina State University have recently found a way to control the movements of moths. Their hope, according to a study published in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, is to create remotely-controlled “biobots” that can one day be dispatched for rescue missions. The manipulation of moth locomotion begins by implanting an electrode into the cocoon of the insect (see the somewhat gross picture below). After breaking from its cocoon, the electrode remains embedded in the adult moth, which monitors the insect’s wing and muscle movements. According to the study, this data may permit neural engineers to develop technology enabling the control of a moth’s “sensory and behavioral physiology." In turn, “this has a potential to directly tame and control insect locomotion,” the report concludes.

Researchers implant an electrode into the cocoon. (Journal of Visualization Experiments)
The electrode remains embedded when the moth matures (Journal of Visualization Experiments)

There’s still significant research and development that needs to be done before “biobot” moths become the latest round of drones occupying our skies. But this isn't merely a wacky idea: In 2006, the Department of Defense sought to outfit bugs with technology that would transmit data from areas inaccessible by soldiers. “Micro unmanned air vehicles” is what the government envisioned, according to PC World.

So respect the humble moth. Sure, they eat holes in your sweaters—but they might one day save your life. 

(Top image courtesy of Shutterstock/Dmitry Syshchikov.)

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