Might bionic moths be the future of disaster relief?

Researchers from North Carolina State University have discovered a way to monitor the electric signals moths use to control their flight muscles, in order to intercept them. Their aim is to create remote-controlled moths that can be fitted with sensors and then sent to, for example, the site of an earthquake or accident, to gather data about the scale of the devastation and the level of emergency response required.

Dr Alper Bozkurt is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university and developed the technique with Dr Amit Lal from Cornell University. It involves attaching electrodes to a moth while it’s changing from a caterpillar.

Bozkurt’s team has expanded on his initial research to pinpoint the precise mechanism by which moths signal their wings to fly, using electrodes to measure their brainwaves. Now they have a detailed understanding of this process, they’re confident they can override it, and create a swarm of ‘biobots’ that can be controlled remotely. Bozkurt says they have more work to do before bionic moths are a reality, including making the technology smaller and perfecting their ability to control moths in flight over long distances.

Far be it for me to rain on their parade, especially considering what a scientific achievement this is and how unenthused I always am to see a free-flying moth in my room at night, but is there any chance this might be a bit… horribly cruel? I get that it’s for humanitarian reasons, but forcing a living creature to fly against their will for our purposes seems a tad selfish, especially considering drones are already a thing. Train the moths to help us out, though, and then I’m on board.

Image credit: Alper Bozkurt.

Diane Shipley