Known for their insatiable appetite and ability to devastate crops, the locust has been a plague to civilizations for thousands of years. However, now scientists think they can put the bug to work helping, instead of harming, humans.
The Office of Naval Research has given Baranidharan Raman, an associate biomedical engineering professor at Washington University, $750,000 to help turn locusts into something the military can use. The three-year grant will fund research to turn the destructive insects into bomb-detecting cyborgs.
Most insects, including locusts, have a very powerful and sensitive olfactory system. Since humans have yet to artificially recreate a similar system, the idea is to use the established smelling talents of the insect to sniff out bombs.
Creating a replicated system would be more complicated and inefficient when compared to the locust’s natural ability, explained Raman.
“Why not take advantage of the biological solution? 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.”
A locust can detect a new odor within milliseconds of being introduced to its environment, Raman noted. The insects have the ability to process “chemical cues in an extremely rapid fashion.” They can even isolate certain odors even when surrounded with multiple scents.
To turn the locusts into an army of bomb detectors, Raman plans to implant sensors into the brains of the locusts. These delicate instruments can record and interpret neural activity.
“We can do a surgery on [the locusts] and implant these electrodes into their brain,” Raman said. “Within a few hours, they can recover and they can walk and behave as if nothing had happened.”
The second part of the plan is to design small “backpacks” connected to the sensors that the locusts can easily carry. The mobile units will send a signal to a receiver connected to an LED. Whenever explosive material is sensed, the light will turn from green to red.
Getting the insects equipped is only part of the research. One major obstacle the scientists need to overcome is how to train the locusts to fly into areas where a bomb may be hidden.
Another Washington University professor, Srikanth Singamaneni, has an idea for that. Specializing in materials science, the professor intends to create a “tattoo” made from biocompatible silk. The material heats up when exposed to light.
The tattoos would be put on the wings of the locusts. To guide the insects in one direction or another, a laser will be shined at them, causing part of the wing to warm up. When the bug is supposed to go right, the laser will hit the right wing, essentially pushing the locust in that direction.
The silk material will serve another purpose as well. Raman and his team will attach “plasmonic nanostructures” to the surface. The tiny arrangements will collect samples of organic compounds near the locusts and allow for a chemical makeup analysis of the compounds.
While the idea of using locusts to find bombs might sound strange, Raman said using bomb-sniffing dogs equipped with similar technology would be extremely expensive and complicated. Besides, he has already deciphered much of the locusts’ neural activity related to smell.
While a lot of work still needs to be done, the scientists believe the first bomb-detecting locusts will be ready within the next 12 months. Raman and his team are not necessarily concerned with the military aspects of developing “cyber insects.” Nonetheless, after investing three-quarters of a million dollars, it is obvious the Navy is very interested in the idea.
[Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]