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Scientists engineer locusts into ‘natural’ bomb detectors

Tue 5 Jul 2016

Locust bomb detector

Researchers have engineered a new monitoring system to be applied to locusts for the remote detection of bombs, and other dangerous substances. The scientists, based at Washington University in St Louis, have created a model whereby electrodes inserted into a locust’s brain can feed back data on whether it has identified any explosive threats.

Research lead and biomedical engineering professor Baranidharan Raman discovered that locusts could be trained to pick up on certain smells. ‘It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust’s brain to begin tracking a novel odour introduced in its surroundings,’ he told the BBC.

Raman suggested that the insects would be more effective bomb detectors than robots and dogs, as they are already natural sensors and do not need extensive training. Locusts are also well-equipped for bomb detection as they’re small, can fly into perhaps otherwise inaccessible locations, are light and less likely to set off an explosion, and humans would perhaps not attach as much sentiment in the event of a locust death as they would if a German Shepherd was killed in the same mission.

Speaking to the university’s Source magazine: ‘Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution? That is the philosophy here… Even the state-of-the-art miniaturised 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.’

Raman’s initial technique involves creating a silk nano-material ‘tattoo’ which is placed on the locust wing. This tattoo, which generates heat, can then be used to control the locust’s flight remotely by heating up the wing to move it closer or further away from a location. An on-board chip tracks neural signals which beam back to an operator. An integrated LED system simply turns a positive detection into a green signal and a negative response to red.

Recently awarded a $750,000 (approx. £574,000) prize by the Office of Naval Research, the team hopes to have a fully operational network of locusts in the air within the next two years.

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military news research robotics
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