Indian-Origin Scientists Develop Electronically Augmented Insects That Can Sniff Bombs

The US may have had trouble containing the massive number of Coronavirus cases within the nation’s boundaries, but an area where they have unmatched expertise is their defense sector and Indian-origin scientists are playing a vital role. 

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The US, which boasts of the most advanced military machines like the elite F-35 fifth-generation stealth jets and a host of other state-of-art equipment, have taken on a project to develop cyborg locusts, in their bid to sniff out explosives and Indian-origin scientists are at the helm of affairs.

Pentagon’s project, which originated in 2016, is funded by the Office of Naval Research has already been injected with a grant of $1.1 million. Researchers at the facility have discovered that the horns of the locust have the capability to differentiate between the scents of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) and other explosives.

A science journal ‘Biosensors and Bioelectronics: X’, published by a Washington University research team, states that the discovery could pave the way for the deployment of bomb-sniffing, electronically augmented bug swarms and be the verify the concept to ‘tap into the antennae and brainpower of garden-variety bugs to create an advanced bomb-detection sensor’.

A cyborg locust outfitted with an electronic backpack.

“The new, peer-reviewed study found that the tiny herbivores can distinguish not only between the vapors from explosive chemicals like TNT, DNT, RDX, PETN, and ammonium nitrate, they can do so within a fraction of a second and can sense where the scent is coming from,” according to the journal.

According to researchers, locusts that are different from grasshoppers due to their ability to swarm over a large-scale have complex sensory organs perfected over a period of 250 million years, with their antenna or horns composed of around 50,000 neurons of some 50 different types.

The cyborg locusts, due to their immense potential frames for sensors, are a great suit for the size and needs of micro-robotics and their sensors can be powered by a battery if the size is small enough.

Under the research, an ‘insect-sized’ laparoscopic surgery was conducted on the locusts, and using electrodes and transmitters, researchers displayed locusts’ ability to detect explosive compounds. The scientists monitor the insect’s firing neurons by ‘disrupting’ their olfactory systems and are able to equip them to alter between materials, way off their usual range of smell detection.

“Engineered devices for this task, popularly referred to as electronic noses, have limited capacity compared to the broad-spectrum abilities of the biological olfactory system. Therefore, we propose a hybrid bio-electronic solution that directly takes advantage of the rich repertoire of olfactory sensors and sophisticated neural computational framework available in an insect olfactory system,” said Barani Raman, Biomedical Engineer, Washington University

Locusts appear to function better as bomb sniffers when in a swarm than being a single unit. They can be expected to give sniffer dogs a run for their money in the future as trained dogs, despite their highly attuned sense of smell, can be expensive to train, and unlike dogs, can be disposable.

Via: Forbes