Moths as drones: Researchers use insects to airdrop environmental sensors.

A team of researchers at the University of Washington has developed a sensor that weighs 98 milligrams and can survive a six-story fall. The sensors are designed to last three years and can collect and wirelessly transmit environmental data such as temperature or humidity.

Moths as drones: Researchers use insects to airdrop environmental sensors.

The sensors can be delivered by miniature drones or carried out on the backs of insects. A video released by the University of Washington shows the actions of both options. The moth shown in the lens is a large moth that the sensor can easily mount on its back.

“This is the first time that sensors have been shown to be released from tiny drones or insects, such as moths, that can travel through confined spaces better than any drone and fly longer,” said Shyam Gollakota, one of the authors of a paper on sensors presented last month at the MobiCom 2020 Mobile Computing Conference.

The team activates the mechanical release via Bluetooth, indicating that the battery-powered sensor dives to the ground. This is an ideal delivery method for remote, small or dangerous locations.

Moths can fly in tight spaces and reach areas that may be difficult for even small drones to reach. The sensor design gives researchers a choice: use small drones when it makes sense, and moths when needed.

While it may be difficult to guide moths exactly where to go, the idea is to use multiple sensors to build a network on farms, forests, or other research areas. Future sensor designs can use solar energy.

The sensor-launched moth is the latest innovation in the field and is exploring how insects can help researchers. The moth worked behind the same University of Washington team before developing a tiny panoramic camera that can be carried on the back of a beetle.