Bomb-Sniffing Cyborg Locusts Can Now Successfully Detect Explosives
Research funded by the U.S. Navy could spell the end of bomb-sniffing dogs
The bad guys wanted to blow something up — but they forgot about the cyborg bugs.
Scientists funded by the United States Navy have revealed they have successfully augmented locusts and hijacked their ability to sense a wide range of chemical odors, including explosives.
According to a preprint research paper published on February 11 in BioRxiv, the insects have been used to detect gases released by substances like ammonium nitrate, commonly used by terrorist groups for bomb-making, and the military explosives TNT and RDX. Individual locusts were able to successfully sniff out incendiary material, but the results improved when the scientists compiled data from seven or more locusts, where the detection capability was distributed across a mini-swarm.
The researchers, from Washington University in St. Louis, declined to comment for this story. But their paper describes how they transformed the bugs into would-be bomb detectors by implanting electrodes into the insects’ brains. That allowed researchers to analyze the neural activity of the locusts when they encountered certain substances.
Four years ago, the U.S. Office of Naval Research allocated $750,000 in funding for the project, but at the time, it was not clear whether the plan to turn locusts into bomb detection agents would actually work. The new paper suggests that some version of a biohacked locust could one day be deployed into the field.
The Washington University scientists cocooned the locusts in tiny wheeled robots that could be positioned at will.
The researchers chose to work with American locusts because they are “sturdy” and “can carry heavy payloads,” the preprint paper reveals. The real challenge was finding a way to read the locusts’ minds without subjecting them to extensive surgery. The procedure involved making a “minor” incision in the locusts’ heads that allowed the insects to continue moving their mouthparts and antennae freely afterward.