Locusts Get New Lease on Life as Cyborg Bomb Sniffers

Researchers tap into locusts’ keen sense of smell to build a proof-of-concept biorobotic tool for finding explosives.

 

Long synonymous with biblical plagues, the locust may have a new, much more inspiring life’s purpose—to serve as a biorobotic device for bomb sniffing and other homeland security applications.

The locust’s highly sensitive olfactory systems make it a perfect muse for modeling a proof-of-concept, “hybrid, locust-based chemical-sensing approach for explosive detection,” according to a biomedical engineering team at Washington University in St. Louis, which just received a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to pursue the cause.

Thanks to the chemical sensors lining a locust's antennas, its sense of smell is far superior than anything a human could replicate, so it only makes sense to take advantage of the biological solution and avoid reinventing the wheel, contends Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who is heading up the research along with colleagues Srikanth Singamaneni, who specializes in materials science, and Shantanu Chakrabartty, a professor of computer science and engineering.

The plan is to implant sensors in locusts’ brains to record and decode neural activity and hook the insect brigade up with tiny “backpacks” used for transmitting signals to an LED. The LED will indicate the presence of explosive materials through the usual "red light, no, green light, yes" paradigm. Some seriously advanced tattoos that convert light to heat will play a role guiding the insects to areas where bombs are a possibility.

A prototype of the bomb-sniffing locust should be out in a year.

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