Cyborg Locusts

A team of engineers from the Washington University in St. Louis are turning insects into cyborgs. Backed by the Navy, the team are developing bomb-sniffing locusts. The research team, led by Baranidharan Raman, received a three-year grant of $750,000 from the Office of Naval Research. Raman and his team found out that the bugs could be trained to discern specific scents even if there are other odors present. Raman believes that the insects will be much better than robots due to their antennae having many natural sensors. Harnessing these sensors will allow for applications impossible by current synthetic sensors.

Photo by Huy Mach

What a Bomb

The engineers plan on turning the locusts into bomb-sensing cyborgs by embedding an electrode into their brains to hijack their antennae and read electrical activity. A story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch describes the training process as “taking a page from Pavlov.” Locusts would be exposed to a smell and then rewarded with food. Consequently, repeating this process just 5 or 6 times caused the insects to associate that smell with food.

Also, the researchers are developing a tiny backpack that can transmit data for the operator to collect and process. A red LED will light up if explosives are detected and a green one lights up when there are none. The engineers are also planning on tattooing the bugs’ wings with biocompatible silk that can covert light into heat. Furthermore, a laser, which would likely be installed in the tiny backpack, would allow an operator to control the insect. Focusing the laser in a certain direction would direct the locust to fly in that direction. The cyborg bug will function much like a remote-controlled drone, or an invention of Marvel’s Hank Pym. The team hopes to test the first prototypes within a year and to successfully complete the project in two years.

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