Locusts: Not just for stripping crops anymore

bomb sniffing locusts

Technophobes worry about a world dominated by robots bent on enslaving humans. Others are vexed by the thought of a society corrupted by an over-reliance on technology that leaves humans unable to function on their own. I say: Beware the cyborg insects!

Lest one think that last bit is just another of this blog’s idiotic rants (which, for the uninitiated, it is), consider what’s being attempted at Washington University in St. Louis:

Researchers are trying to take locusts, the same insects that love to strip the fields of already-starving populations, and marry their keen sense of smell with nanotechnology in a bid to create living bomb detectors.

A “heat-generating tattoo on the wings of the insects can allow the team to control where they fly, while a small computer attached to its body will capture their neural signals,” according to Red Orbit. “The computer will then decode the signals as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ message, which will be sent back to the team. There, it will cause a red or green LED to light up, signaling either that a bomb is present or that it is not.”

While relying on an insect over a bomb-sniffing drone or dog might seem fanciful, the bottom line, according to team leader Baranidharan Raman, is that simpler is better.

Dogs have one of the most powerful senses of smell amongst animals, but require years of training – and a great deal of expense; locusts have a strong sense of smell, and can be directed much more simply, according to Red Orbit. Plus, the locust system might perform better than man-made ones.

“It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust’s brain to begin tracking a novel odor introduced in its surroundings,” Raman told the BBC. “The locusts are processing chemical cues in an extremely rapid fashion.

“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 antennae, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types,” he added.

And, let’s face it, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get attached to “Elijah,” the bomb-sniffing locust, making him considerably more expendable than a police squad’s bomb dog or an expensive robot.

These “cyborg” locusts are currently in their early phase of testing, but Raman believes that the technology could become available within two years.

Raman’s team recently received a grant of $750,000 from the US Office of Naval Research for his project.

That will either move the project considerably along or, if they’re already in the advanced stages, procure a whole mess of locusts.

(A researcher holds a locust that has sensors implanted in its brain to decode neural activity. Photo courtesy of Baranidharan Raman, Washington University, St. Louis.)

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4 thoughts on “Locusts: Not just for stripping crops anymore

  1. I heard some talk of this years ago; fascinating that it’s already reached this stage of development. $750,000 seems an awfully small amount for a grant if the research is that promising, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if an agri-tech giant was working on a similar project with different applications in mind.

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