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Experimental robot car in Tokyo is driven by moths in search of a date

No, it’s not a wacky Japanese game show, folks, scientists at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology really have built a robot car which can be controlled by silkworm moths in their quest to find an attractive mate. Picture the Pimp My Ride of the lepidopteran world — only with labcoat-wearing scientists playing the Xzibit role!

The work involved getting moths to walk over an air-supported ball treadmill in pursuit of female silkworm pheromones. The vehicle built by the scientists follows the movement of the ball by way of optical sensors and then drives in that direction.

As it turned out, the moths were reasonably proficient drivers, too. In seven trials with seven drivers, the insects were able to drive the car to their targets almost as efficiently as they would by walking — arriving just two seconds behind the walking moths.

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But what is a scent-driven robot moth car actually useful for? Quite a lot, it turns out. “Our goal is to understand the mechanism behind insect adaptive behaviors,” researcher Noriyasu Ando told Digital Trends. “We have two usages regarding this robot: One is for engineering and the other is for biology.”

The engineering use for this robot car is in the interests of developing artificial systems based on biological principles — in this case a robot that could turn biological inputs (sense of smell) into control mechanisms.

From a biological perspective, the work can help uncover details of the insect brain. “We can employ this ‘hybrid’ robot as an experimental tool for understanding the mechanism behind insect adaptive behavior,” Ando continued. “If we regard the insect-controlled robot as a single organism, the robot part is implemented in the closed-loop of the sensory-motor system of this hybrid organism. This point is beneficial for biologists because we can easily, reversibly and non-invasively alter the sensory-motor properties of the organism.”