Researchers in the US are working on technology that will enable half-robot locusts to detect explosives hidden in areas that no other methods can get to safely. If it is a successful attempt, it has the potential to change the way we seek out hidden explosives. It will also mean that we don't have to put humans or dogs in harm's way anymore.
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Baranidharan Raman, the brains behind the project, worked on it at Washington University in St. Louis. He wants to combine the insect's ability to detect specific scents with a series of specialized electronics. This makes it the perfect create to sniff out bombs and other dangerous materials.
The system will work by putting a heat-generating tattoo on the wings of the locusts that will throb, which will then allow the team to control where the insect flies. It will also allow them to capture organic compound samples of the air around the locust.
Once there is a potential bomb threat, the locust's neural signals will be able to be deciphered by a small computer affixed to its body. These signals will be read as a simple "yes" or "no" message. That information is sent back to the team, lighting up a green or red LED signal.
Why did Raman decide to use a living creature? It is something natural and saves on developmental costs, for one. The other reason is that the locust has a better sense of smell than anything we could make in the lab.
"It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust's brain to begin tracking a novel odor introduced in its surroundings," Raman told the BBC. "The locusts are processing chemical cues in an extremely rapid fashion. 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 antennae, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types," he added.
Dogs have a better sense of smell than a locust does, but there are obvious downsides to the use of them. It takes years to train a dog and they aren't easily replaced.
"The canine olfactory system still remains the state-of-the-art sensing system for many engineering applications, including homeland security and medical diagnosis," Raman said. "However, the difficulty and the time necessary to train and condition these animals, combined with [a] lack of robust decoding procedures to extract the relevant chemical sending information from the biological systems, pose a significant challenge for wider application."
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Raman's locusts are still new and they will take a while to test. Still, he is hopeful that they will be available within the next two years. That's plausible, according to Engadget, because the US Office of Naval Research just gave him $750,000 to fund the project.