The US Navy is Spending $750k on Bomb-Sniffing Robot Locusts

Locusts tend to be associated with plagues, but they might soon be our saviors—because a  researcher from Washington University in St. Louis is looking to turn them into living bomb detectors, according to ScienceAlert.

According to team leader Baranidharan Raman, the project aims to achieve this by combining locusts’ keen sense of smell with electronics, thereby creating a sort of locust cyborg. For instance, a heat-generating tattoo on the wings of the insects can allow the team to control where they fly, while a small computer attached to its body will capture their neural signals. The computer will then decode the signals as a “yes” or “no” message, which will be sent back to the team. There, it will cause a red or green LED to light up, signaling either that a bomb is present or that it is not.

As to why a locust—and not just a bomb-sniffing drone or dog—it comes down to simplicity. Dogs have one of the most powerful senses of smell amongst animals, but require years of training; locusts have a strong sense of smell, and can be directed much more simply. And taking advantage of a pre-made (in this case, naturally-existing) system means you don’t have to throw extraordinary amounts of money into developing a new one. Plus, the locust system might perform better than man-made ones.

Using the insect’s incredible senses

“It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust’s brain to begin tracking a novel odour 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 miniaturised 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.

These “cyborg” locusts are currently in their early phase of testing, but Raman believes that the technology could become available within two years. Raman also stated in a recent interview that his team isn’t sure how exactly how the locusts will be used to improve safety, but potential use cases should make themselves apparent over time. 

Of course, a recent grant of $750,000 from the U.S. Office of Naval Research doesn’t hurt, either.


Image credit: Baranidharan Raman, Washington University in St. Louis