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FOLLOW THE SMELL

Moths are driving miniature cars to help scientists build odor-tracking robots

By Michael Tabb

It turns out that moths are actually pretty good at driving—at least when scientists hook them up to the right equipment.

In a recent study published in JoVE Video Journal, researchers at the University of Tokyo leveraged a moth’s acute sense of smell to let the insects ”steer” a vehicle toward a specific odor. It’s part of their ongoing research into making robots that mimic the insect’s odor-tracking skills.

How does a moth driving a tiny car fit into their plan?

This isn’t actually the core part of their research. The researchers are primarily working to build a model of a moth’s brain, using data to figure out how the insect localizes odors and translates those sensations into movement. But once they finish that model, they’ll need a way to test it, and that’s where the moth-driven robot comes in.

The experiment proves that a moth’s sensory-motor system can effectively steer not only a living creature, but also a mechanical robot. And it also shows how that future brain model would be expected to perform when connected to a robotic car.

Watch the video above for more details about the research, and the significant practical applications of odor-tracking robots.