Locusts came to fame as agents of destruction during the eighth plague of Egypt in the Bible, but some researchers envision a new occupation for the humble insects: cyborg bomb detectors.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Office of Naval Research has given Washington University in St. Louis associate biomedical engineering professor Baranidharan Raman and his team a $750,000, three-year grant to continue his research into turning ordinary locusts into military tools.
The idea is simple, even if the execution is not. Like most insects, locusts are equipped with an exponentially more powerful and sensitive olfactory system than anything humans can artificially replicate — so why not use this preexisting system to hunt for bombs, rather than attempting to create what will inevitably be a pale imitation?
“Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution?” Raman said in a news release. “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.”
In other words, locusts are great at smelling things, even when a certain scent might seem masked by many others.
“It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust’s brain to begin tracking a novel odor introduced in its surroundings,” he told the BBC. “The locusts are processing chemical cues in an extremely rapid fashion.”
So the first step is harnessing those antennae. And that requires the implantation of sensors, which can record and decode certain neural activity, into the locusts’ brains.
“We can do a surgery on [the locusts] and implant these electrodes into their brain,” Raman told KMWU-FM. “Within a few hours, they can recover and they can walk and behave as if nothing had happened.”
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