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Office of Naval Research thinks cyborg locusts could help us sniff out explosives

Dogs are regularly used for sniffing out bombs due to their superior sense of smell. But Baranidharan Raman, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has another idea which doesn’t involve canines. Instead, he thinks we will soon be turning the job of sniffing out explosive chemicals over to none other than backpack-wearing remote-control cyborg locusts. Yes, really!

Calling his work a “bridge between neuroscience and engineering,” Raman’s efforts may sound far-fetched, but they’re apparently serious enough to receive funding from the Office of Naval Research.

The proposal involves three core technologies, all of which will have to work together for this plan to fall into place. The first bit of tech involves special biocompatible silk tattoos marked on the wings of the locusts, which convert light into heat. Targeting these tattoos with a laser will supposedly allow a “pilot” to steer the insect, by controlling the heat it experiences to direct it left or right.

Second is the ability to work out what a locust is sniffing when it reaches an area of interest. To do this, Raman and his colleagues plan to implant the bug’s brain with an electrode, capable of feeding back its experiences to its human overlords.

Finally, transmitting this information is where the backpack comes in — since this miniature wearable will log the locust’s “neural energy” and send it back to operators.

As for how long we’ll be waiting until biblical plagues of locusts descending on bomb squads around the world, Raman says there’s still work to be done. “We’ve tested all of these technologies individually,” he tells Digital Trends. “The challenge now is to integrate them all together in the way that we want them to, and to put them through an extensive testing period. If all goes according to plan, I’d say we’re about a year away from deployment.”

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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