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Wednesday, March 4, 1998 Published at 00:21 GMT


Cyberbugs are go
image: [ The scientists got a moth's antennae to work attached to a robot ]
The scientists got a moth's antennae to work attached to a robot

Japanese scientists say they have found a way of removing a moth's antennae and getting it to work while connected to a miniature robot.

Researchers hope the technology being developed could eventually be used to control swarms of bees and locusts.

Professor Kevin Warwick talks to the BBC World Service about the exciting but worrying advances (2'54")
In the Japanese project, the antennae of a male moth is removed and attached to a tiny wheeled vehicle containing a robot.

Professor Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics expert from the University of Reading in England explained: "The antennae still operate effectively for about three to four hours after they've been cut off the moth.

[ image: The work could be applied to other insects such as locusts]
The work could be applied to other insects such as locusts
"Essentially, what happens is the female moth - that's still alive - will give off a pheromone that attracts the male moth.

"The male moth's antennae is now connected up to this box of tricks, the electronics, and rather than the male moth responding, they've got a little robot responding."

Professor Warwick said the work complemented previous Japanese research, which replaced motorneurones in cockroaches. This allowed scientists to control the cockroach by a radio-link.

The latest development allows researchers to replicate insects' behaviour in a robotic form.

"Looking to the future, the ability to connect up the biological side, just in insects, opens up a lot of possibilities.

"If you look to locusts, say, or bees, both of those swarm and can cause a lot of problems.

[ image: Controlling the Queen Bee could direct a swarm]
Controlling the Queen Bee could direct a swarm
"If we can get in there and control how they're swarming, maybe control the Queen Bee, get the bees to go in a particular direction or get the locusts to go away from where we don't want them ... by actually sending out signals to other locusts in "locusts' language or bee-language."

Professor Warwick said despite the lack of human knowledge about insect behaviour this possibility could be imminent.

"At the moment, we don't really understand too much about how insects think or act or so on. But in terms of getting signals out to do this or do that, we could do it by trial and error. Quite simply, let's try something, if that doesn't work, let's try something else."

But even as a scientist working in the field, Professor Warwick said he had reservations about the ethics of creating "cyberbugs".

"I can see where there are distinct positives, benefits for humans and so on, then it's probably good going ahead.

"Where there's not, were it's pure speculation, then there are people who have ethical problems. Should we be chopping insects up in this way and connecting them to pieces of electronics? Is it good or bad?

"It is exciting from a scientific point of view but also you feel, should we really be doing this?"

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