Bioengineers have been experimenting with outfitting organisms with technology to help mankind explore areas of this world that are difficult for humans access. From disaster area search and rescue cockroaches to a new locust that sniff out bombs, much of this technology has been designed specifically with the betterment of life on Earth in mind.
And now, yes, US Navy scientists have outfitted locusts with special sensors that can help to identify bombs. Or, rather, the US Office of Naval Research has awarded a team of researchers from the University of Washington (St Louis, MO), a $750,000 research grant (to be spread out over three years) aimed at engineering locusts to remotely sense bombs and other explosive devices.
The technology is said to work by using the insects already prolific antenna to sense chemical changes in the atmosphere, indicating potential dangers.
“The chemical sensing part of these insects is extremely well developed,” advises University of Washington biomedical engineer Baranidharan Raman. “They can smell a new odor that comes into the environment within a few hundred milliseconds.”
Raman also goes on to inquire, “Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution?” But, in all seriousness, he further explains, “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.”
And, of course, this is nothing new. We know that mammals can be trained to identify these chemical changes. Dogs, for example, sniff out drugs and bombs for the police, and scientists commonly use the proficient rodent sense of smell to observe rats in a maze.
The advantage to using insects, though, is that they have a far less complicated neurological system than mammals and this makes them easier to engineer and control. In addition, the surgery to modify an insect is much more simple than that of a mammal and insects can recover from said surgery much more quickly, nearly unaware that it even happened in the first place.
Of course, the ideal bomb-identifying insect would be able to fly and to crawl into hard-to-reach places. And researchers are still investigating the most effective, least invasive, and most efficient ways to implant bugs to use for this benefit.