2020 may be the year of the locust. Perhaps not since the plagues of Egypt have insects enjoyed such fame. The year began with record-breaking swarms in East Africa. Now the humble hoppers are being touted as some of the world’s best bomb sniffers.
It’s no secret. In a nose contest, dogs win gold every time. (See “A Nose for Fruit.”) But insects have one big plus. They’re easier to control—with the right technology, that is.
Like all of God’s creation, insects are marvels of engineering and design—far beyond anything science can produce. Locusts, for their part, are incredible sniffers. Their antennae are jam-packed with smell sensors. The sensors allow the bugs to notice tiny changes in scents.
“If you look at the insect antenna,” says biomedical engineer Baranidharan Raman of Washington University in St. Louis, “there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types.”
The U.S. Navy funded a study to turn locusts into high-tech fighting tools. The idea is surprisingly simple: Program bugs to smell bombs.
Researchers say single insects have already been able to detect TNT, a substance used in many explosives. But where one locust is good, a swarm is better when it comes to bomb sniffing. The team says sending seven or more locusts improved the explosive-finding results.
Raman told Popular Science, “[Locusts] can smell a new odor that comes into the environment within a few hundred milliseconds.”
How do you turn a bug into a ’borg? First, researchers hijack the bug’s antennae. Raman’s team placed probes in the brains of locusts. The probes collected data from the smelling region of the insects’ nervous systems. The embedded sensors signal a transmitter and receiver hooked up to an LED light. When a locust smells explosives, the receiver shines red. No explosives? It shines green.
To tell the insects which way to fly, scientists are developing bug “tattoos.” A tattoo made of silk would be stuck to the locust’s wings. A laser pointed at the wings would heat the tattoo. That sensation would force the insect to fly one way or another—much like a bit in a horse’s mouth.
There’s much to be done before bomb-sniffing cyborg bugs end up on the front lines. But in order to bring this sci-fi story to real life, scientists have been busy as bees.