Cyborg Insects

How did I miss this hornworm caterpillar (Manduca sexta, Carolina Sphinx Moth, Tobacco Hornworm) on my basil yesterday when I watered?  It’s huge!  When I looked up its name, I found an interesting article about experiments being done on the moths.

Cyborg insects ‘born’ in DARPA project

Insects with modified body structures and embedded micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) have survived to adulthood in a US Defense Advanced Reseach Projects Agency (DARPA) programme.

DARPA wants to develop inexpensive micro air vehicles to find weapons and explosives inside buildings or caves. Mechanical and fluidic microsystems would allow remote control, could extend insect life, and provide for gas, audio and even imaging sensors.

In the latest work a Manduca moth had its thorax truncated to reduce its mass and had a MEMS component added where abdominal segments would have been, during the larval stage.

Images taken by x-ray of insects with these changes and others found that tissue growth around the inserted probes was good. One DARPA goal is to show that during locomotion the heat and mechanical power generated by the thorax could be harnessed to power the MEMS.

Giving the presentation on behalf of DARPA at the 1st US-Asian assessment and demonstration of micro aerial and unmannned ground vehicle technology, Georgia Institute of Technology Research Institute’s aerospace, transportation and advanced systems laboratory’s principal research engineer, emeritus, Robert Michelson said: “You’d like this [cyborg insect] to be created out where you need it rather than in a lab in California.”

He added that drawbacks included the short life-span of insects, which means they could be dead before they are needed, and the fact that MEMS insertion was labour-intensive.

One of DARPA’s goals is to remote-pilot a cyborg insect to within 327ft of a target. Control could be maintained using pheromones or mechano-sensor activation and direct muscle or neural interfaces using the embedded MEMS.

But then I wondered what a tobacco/ tomato worm was doing on my basil and I looked further.  I found a site ( that said that it was the larva of the Rustic Sphinx moth (Manduca rustica), common in the southwest.  Since those moths feed at night, they pollinate the thorn-apples, those huge, attractive weeds in my yard.  And I did find another hornworm on one of the thorn-apple plants.  Now I’m sorry I peeled the caterpillar off my basil and tossed it into the yard.  (Except I do like to harvest my basil leaves.)

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3 Responses to “Cyborg Insects”

  1. Rhonda R. Fleming Says:

    Way cool!

  2. Barbara Kittle Says:

    I had a similar worm on my lantana, and didn’t discover it until it was about three inches long. I wondered why the leaves kept disappearing! I tossed it out into the desert. I wonder what the moths look like.

  3. Jim Says:

    They crawl off the datura and tomato plants when it comes time to transform into a pupa. They then reincarnate in the fabulous sphinx moth, an aerodynamic wonder. Your can watch them do this, if you put them in jar with a few upright twigs. Skunks, raccoons, foxes, and roadrunners consider them to be nutritious delicacies. They are also attacked by a small wasp that lays its eggs on their backs. The maggots burrow inside of the caterpillar to safely devour it. I have not observed this.

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