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Scientists tap into moth brains hoping to improve human flight
Hawk moth. (Credit: FIU Ph.D. student Yash Sondhi)

Scientists tap into moth brains hoping to improve human flight

May 17, 2022 at 8:51am

Moths perform feats of flight that rival or even outperform human pilots, but how they do it remains a mystery. Now, with a $7 million Department of Defense (DoD) grant, researchers are going to tap into the tiny brains of these fantastic flying insects to find out how they do it — information that could possibly advance technology.

FIU Associate Professor of Biology Jamie Theobald is part of a team that also includes scientists from Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Washington, Cornell University and Duke University that recently received the DoD’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) award. They plan to study hawk moths to understand how they control their flight trajectories.  

Georgia Tech Dunn Family Associate Professor of Physics and Biological Sciences Simon Sponberg will lead the project the team calls FLAP — Fast, Lexicographic Agile Perception Integrates Decision and Control in a Spike-Resolved, Sensorimotor Program. FLAP addresses the core DoD topic area of understanding neural systems integration for competent autonomy in decision and control. The award will also support students from Theobald’s lab to participate in the research.

Although insects have brains a millionth of a fraction of the size of a human brain, those tiny brains can make sophisticated, split-second decisions during flight. They grab and process images at a lightning-fast level, almost like a sped-up slideshow. If they come across an obstacle or something unknown, they don’t panic. Instead, they simply change course and fly in another direction.

“Insects are baffling because they can outperform trained fighter pilots, but with brains sometimes smaller than a grain of rice,” said Theobald, whose lab focuses on insect vision and flight. “They have been exploring and hunting in flight longer than birds and bats, but no one knows exactly how they control their aerial trajectories.”

Researchers will record the electrical activity in the moths’ brains to see what’s happening at the neuron level. The goal is to develop a framework that enables quick, flexible decision-making that could possibly facilitate the next generation of autonomous bio-inspired systems and better integrate living systems with engineered technologies — all important to the Air Force.

“MURIs were originally training grants for the DoD to develop the next generation of scientists who would make progress,” Sponberg said. “This funding will allow us to have postdocs and graduate students across all six labs and disciplines working together tightly and creating a community.

The highly competitive MURI program has made immense contributions to both defense and society at large. Examples include advances in development of new theories, algorithms, and automated toolsets to speed synthesis of novel energetics for the DoD; modeling and tools to understand and predict population migration due to naturally occurring and human-caused events; and development of novel materials with unprecedented optical, thermal, and mechanical properties for a wide array of DoD applications. These and other important technological advances from the MURI program have had a significant impact on current and future military capabilities, as well as multiple applications in the commercial sector.