The cutting edge of bomb detection technology may soon be a bug wearing a backpack. A team of engineers from Washington University in St. Louis is developing cyborg locusts that will be flown via remote control into hazardous areas, use their antennae to sniff for explosive chemicals, and send wireless alerts when they find them.
The project is funded by the Office of Naval Research and is led by associate professor of biomedical engineering, Baranidharan Raman, who has spent years studying how locusts process smell. Raman says that human-engineered sensing devices are pretty basic compared to animal noses designed by mother nature.
“Why reinvent the wheel?” Raman said in a statement. “Why not take advantage of the biological solution?”
To create these biorobotic bugs, Raman tells Popular Science he and his colleagues plan to integrate three far-out sounding technologies.
First, they’ve got to steer the locust into the right spot. To do this, they will tattoo the bug’s wings with a biocompatible silk that can convert light into heat. By targeting the tattoo with a laser, the direction of the locust’s flight can be controlled; more heat on the right and the bug flies left, and vice versa.
Once the locust is in the danger zone, the researchers need to know what it’s smelling. By surgically implanting an electrode into the bug’s brain, they plan to hijack its antennae. When the locust smells something, the electrode will read the resulting electrical activity.
Finally, they need to transmit the information from the locust to the operator. That’s where the tiny backpack comes in. The team will design a low-power, low-weight device worn on the locust’s back that can log the neural activity on a chip or send it wirelessly to the operator.
All of these technologies have been tested individually, Raman says. Now they need to integrate them into a holistic, bionic-bug system.
“The chemical sensing part of these insects is extremely well developed,” Raman said. “They can smell a new odor that comes into the environment within a few hundred milliseconds.”
But the real key, he says, is the relative simplicity of the locust’s brain. That’s what allows it to be hijacked, which, if all goes right, will allow for remote explosive sensing.
Raman believes that eventually cyborg locusts could be used for other sniff-centric tasks, even medical diagnoses that rely on smell.