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US Navy Funds Scientists to Develop Locusts as Cyborg Bomb Sniffers of the Future

Jul 07, 2016 04:00 AM EDT
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There's a new breed of bomb sniffers coming to town.

A team from Washington University in St. Louis led by a biomedical engineering professor has been awarded a three-year grant worth $750,000 by the Office of Naval Research to continue their research in turning locusts into cyborg bomb sniffers.

In a press release from the university, Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, said they will develop a bio-hybrid nose to sense explosives based on the highly sensitive olfactory system of locusts.

Raman noted that compared to engineered systems, the biological sensing system of many vertebrates are more advanced, which the professor and his team will take advantage of.

“Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution?” he said. "That is the philosophy here. Even the state-of-the-art miniaturized chemical sensing devices have a handful of sensors."

He added, "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.”

But how will the locusts detect bombs?

The team is aiming to detect the locusts' brain activity via an on-board processing chip while letting the insects fly freely in the environment. The chip will transmit information from the insects' brain to the authorities, BBC reports.

The team is also trying to create a remote control system that will stir and guide the locusts to particular locations for sample collection. A plasmonic "tattoo" made of a biocompatible silk will be applied to the locusts' wings, which will generate heat to steer the locusts as well as collect samples of organic compounds.

Raman is joined by engineering colleagues Srikanth Singamaneni, associate professor of materials science, and Shantanu Chakrabartty, professor of computer science & engineering.

Currently, Raman explained that the majority of bomb and explosive sniffers are canines. However, there are some concerns due to the lack of necessary training as well as an established decoding procedure that will extract and interpret the signals from the animals' biological system.

What makes the new research different, according to Raman, is that using locusts presents a "chemical-sensing approach for explosive detection.”

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