The next development in bomb detecting devices is beginning to take flight. A team of engineers out of Washington University in St. Louis is developing a robotic locust for homeland security applications, capitalizing on the creature's impeccable sense of smell to detect explosives. 

The natural sensors of these bomb-sniffing locusts are more advanced than similar man-made technology, according to Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science there. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has given him a 3-year grant of $750,000, which he will use to develop the technology with engineering colleagues Srikanth Singamaneni and Shantanu Chakrabartty. Raman has been doing similar work for years, and found that locusts have a fine-tuned sense of smell, able to identify odors through overlapping scents and a variety of background conditions. 

“Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution?” Raman said in a statement to The Source. “That is the philosophy here. 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 antenna, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types.”

The team will place miniature electronic sensors on the locusts to monitor their neural activity as they move through their environments, deciphering different scents. The electrodes will be implanted into the insects' brains through a quick surgery. "Within a few hours, they can recover and they can walk and behave as if nothing had happened," Raman told KMWU-FM of the procedure.

Image: Professor Baranidharan Raman/Washington University in St. Louis
Image via Professor Baranidharan Raman, Washington University in St. Louis

Researchers will also place a connected, heat-generating "tattoo" on locust wings that will allow them to steer the bugs. Raman said cyborg insects could be a more efficient alternative to bomb-sniffing dogs, currently widely used in detecting explosives. 

“The canine olfactory system still remains the state-of-the-art sensing system for many engineering applications, including homeland security and medical diagnosis,” he said. “However, the difficulty and the time necessary to train and condition these animals, combined with lack of robust decoding procedures to extract the relevant chemical sending information from the biological systems, pose a significant challenge for wider application."

The researchers plan to finish a prototype for explosive detection this year.