Cyborg Locusts With Tattooed Wings Could Be The Next Bomb Detectors

A team of engineers from Washington University in St. Louis is developing cyborg locusts that will be able to sniff out explosives. They will be flown via remote control into hazardous areas, and electrodes in their brains would then beam information back to their operators, indicating whether or not they had found dangerous substances.

Baranidharan Raman, of the Washington University in St Louis, said that they have studied the way locusts smell for past many years. He and his team found that locusts can identify particular scents, such as those they’re trained to detect, even in the presence of other odours.

The locusts’ brain is able to track a new odour introduced in its surrounding in just a few hundred milliseconds, says Raman. The researchers said that they will attack sensors to the locusts. These sensors will be connected to those parts of the locusts’ brain that processed odours in the environment.

Raman believes the cyborg bugs will be much more effective than robots, because their antennae have a ton of natural sensors. He said that animal noses were still far more sophisticated than anything artificial.

“Why reinvent the wheel?” he told the university’s Source magazine. “Why not take advantage of the biological solution?” he asked. “That is the philosophy here. Even the state-of-the-art miniaturized chemical sensing devices have a handful of sensors. On the other hand, if you look at the insect antenna, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types.”

But haven’t animals long been used to detect explosives?

Bomb sniffing dogs are extremely effective – except in hot conditions when they begin panting. Rats have also been proposed.

But cyborg insects offer several advantages, flying to inaccessible locations and running far less risk of triggering explosions.

The Office of Naval Research in the US has given Raman a grant of worth $750,000 to continue his research for three years.

To create these bio-robotic bugs, he and his colleagues plan to integrate three far-out sounding technologies.

Firstly, they’ve got to steer the locust into the right spot. To do this, they will tattoo the bug’s wings with a biocompatible silk that can convert light into heat. By targeting the tattoo with a laser, the direction of the locust’s flight can be controlled; more heat on the right and the bug flies left, and vice versa.

Once the locust is in the danger zone, the researchers need to know what it smells. To turn ordinary locusts into bomb-sniffing machines, the engineers plan to implant an electrode into their brains to hijack their antennae and read electrical activity when the locust smells something.

Also, since operators need to get whatever info the bugs collect, the researchers are also developing a tiny, low-power, low-weight backpack to be put on the locust’s back that can transmit data. The receiver’s red LED lights up in the presence of explosives, while the green LED lights up in the absence of any.

Raman says all of these technologies have been tested individually. Now, they need to integrate them into a holistic, bionic-bug system. He said he could have functioning locust detectors in two years.

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