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Could an army of moths build a worldwide sensor network?

Answer: Yes.

a closeup of a moth
Shutterstock/Jirasak Chuangsen
There is so much that we could learn about our home planet if we could only study every inch of it. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for humans to access and study every part of the world in person. That’s where insects come in.

A group of researchers at the University of Washington have devised a teeny-tiny sensor that could be deposited anywhere in the world that is accessible to a moth. Their system works much like Amazon’s vision of drone delivery services. The sensor, which weighs less that one hundredth of an ounce, can be attached to a moth’s back with a magnetic pin surrounded by a wire coil. When the moth reaches the desired location, the coil is remotely activated to generate an electrical current. This causes a tiny magnetic field that pops the pin out of place, and the sensor falls to the ground. Due to its minuscule size, the sensor can fall from a distance of up to 72 feet without incurring any damage.

“Dropping things from the air is a great way to get things into hard-to-reach places,” Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington, told Digital Trends. “This is a strategy people use in disaster scenarios to deliver food and medical supplies, and is usually done with large planes or helicopters. That got us thinking, can we use this same idea with much smaller drones, or even live insects, to release sensors across a large area?”