When sometime in the future you stand at your backdoor and lament the massive cloud of cyborg locusts that now rule the world, remember that you were warned.
Yes friends, cyborg locusts are officially a funded project from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The agency recently awarded a team of engineers from Washington University in St. Louis $750,000 to transform the short-horned grasshoppers into bomb-sniffing military assets. Why the interest in a species that has been the bane of agriculture for centuries? Turns out the sense of smell that makes locust swarms so efficient at tracking down meals also makes them ideal candidates for rooting out chemicals used to make bombs.
“Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution?” team leader Bahrani Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, said in a statement. “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 order to harness the power of these antennae, Raman and his team need to surgically implant sensors into the locust's brain to record and interpret chemical signals.
“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.”
The sensors would then be connected to a lightweight backpack that would decode information and send them wirelessly to a receiver.
As for how the locusts might be used in the field, there are some intriguing possibilities.
Back in 2013, Raman and his team showed that locusts could be "trained" to identify certain odors with near-instant accuracy. A few seconds after the requisite odor was introduced, the locusts would be given a reward, initiating a kind of Pavlovian conditioning. While results in the field would likely differ from those in the lab, training locusts to seek out certain chemical odors is one possibility.
The other idea involves something called "biocompatible silk." In a nutshell, scientists would implant this material as a kind of tattoo on the locust's wings. When a laser shines at the mark, it converts the light to a mild heat, effectively telling the insects to move left or right.
The biocompatible silk method comes on the heels of successful flight control of beetles using sensory implants. Instead of lasers, the researchers from the University of California at Berkeley wirelessly initiated pulses of electrical stimulation into the right and left optic lobes, as seen in this video:
“We expect this work to develop and demonstrate a proof-of-concept, hybrid locust-based, chemical-sensing approach for explosive detection,” Raman added.
The team hopes to have a working, living prototype created within the next year.