Watch this moth drive a scent-controlled car

We’ve all heard the stories about humans losing their jobs to robots. But what about man’s best friend? A new study suggests that drug-sniffing dogs may soon have a competitor in the workplace: an insect-piloted robotic vehicle that could help scientists build better odor-tracking robots to find disaster victims, detect illicit drugs or explosives, and sense leaks of hazardous materials. The robotic car’s driver is a silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) tethered in a tiny cockpit so that its legs can move freely over an air-supported ball, a bit like an upside-down computer mouse trackball. Using optical sensors, the car follows the ball’s movement and moves in the same direction. With its odor-sensitive antennae, the moth senses a target smell—in this case, female silkworm sex pheromones—and walks toward it along the trackball, driving the robotic car. Across seven trials with seven different drivers, the insects piloted the vehicle consistently toward the pheromones, nearly as well as 10 other silkworm moths who could walk freely on the ground toward the smells, the researchers reported last month in the Journal of Visualized Experiments. On average, the driving moths reached their target about 2 seconds behind the walking moths, although their paths were more circuitous. The researchers say their findings could help roboticists better integrate biologically inspired odor detection systems into their robots. Engineers might even be able to develop more powerful and maneuverable versions of the study’s robot car that could be driven by silkworms genetically modified to detect a wide variety of smells to help with sniffing tasks traditionally done by trained animals. Time to start polishing up those résumés, pooches.