As far as detecting possible bomb threats with zero human casualties, the authorities have had to rely on robots that are maneuvered remotely to the scene. If they find a bomb, sometimes things do not go as planned and they end up setting the bomb off.
That leaves no human casualties, but these robots are not cheap to come by. The more robots get blown up in a mission to detonate bombs, the higher the cost of operations for the authorities. Well, there could soon be a solution to that in the form of flying locusts.
Maybe this act could be something animal rights activists’ will have a problem with. Nonetheless, a team of engineers from the Washington University in St. Louis are working on turning the locusts into cyborgs that can sniff out bombs. The research is being bankrolled by the United States’ Navy, which is reported to have given the researchers $750,000 three-year grant through the Office of Naval Research.
The researchers have been studying locusts for years, with a special interest in their sense of smell. The team leader, Baranidharan Raman argues, locusts will be more effective in sniffing out bombs than robots. He says the insect’s antennae have tons of natural sensors, while the robots at best can only be designed with just about a handful of sensors.
“Why reinvent the wheel? 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.” – says Raman.
The team of researchers has established that locusts can detect specific scents, take, for instance, those they have been trained to detect, even in the midst of other odors. For that reason, Raman and team believe locust will be better at sniffing out bomb threats than robots. Well, other than the obvious fact that they will cost less to operate and replace than robots.
How to Control the Locusts
The team plans on hijacking the antennae signal in the insect, by implanting electrodes into their brains. They will then be able to read their brains’ electrical activities. They team will also have to fit the locust with miniature backpacks, which they will carry on their backs as they fly around.
The backpack will allow operators to receive data recorded by the electrodes inside the insects in real time. The receivers LED lights will light red when explosives are detected, and green in the absence of any.
To control the locusts’ movements and flight, the engineers say they will tattoo the insects’ wings with biocompatible silk that converts light to heat. Using a laser, probably installed inside the backpack, the operator will remotely control the locusts. By focusing the laser on the right wing, the insect will move towards the right, and vice versa.
It will feel more like controlling a drone, except this will be a bio-drone that eats, breaths, and can die. If all goes as expected, Raman and his team will have the first prototypes within a year’s time and two years down; they will have the ‘stable’ line of locust to sniff out bombs.