It may sound like a movie plot starring you and Tom Selleck, but a team of engineers at The Washington University in St. Louis, led by associate professor of biomedical engineering, Baranidharan Raman, has spent the last few years developing cyborg insects.
A $750,000 grant, which was given to the team in 2016 from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), has since been used to study the extraordinary olfactory senses found in locusts to sniff out certain chemicals. Yes, like a bomb-sniffing dog, but smaller and with a tendency to devour crop fields.
The idea behind the study was not to invent a new method of uncovering explosives but to use the innate sensory apparatus of an insect to our advantage (MWAHAHA). Fact is, biological sensory systems outclass our weak, man-made efforts in many ways. This is evident with dogs that are trained for such duties and became evident to the research team after observing a locusts’ neural activity when exposed to certain environmental stimuli.
But you might be wondering, why locusts and not dogs?
Well, there are two reasons.
First, an insect’s antennae have thousands of sensors capable of detecting all matter of chemicals and conditions. While locusts have nowhere near the same sense of smell as dogs, they detect many things much faster. By attaching a small plasmonic patch to a locust’s thorax, the engineers were able to collect data about various elements in the location where the locust was deployed.
The second reason: mind control.
It takes a lot of time and effort to train bomb-sniffing dogs and even then who could stand to lose man’s best friend out in the field?
With the same technology, a smaller plasmonic “tattoo” could be applied to generate heat in specific areas on the locusts’ wings to steer it toward areas to scout. The locusts are directed to the area, scouting it out naturally with their antennae, then guided back for data retreival. Locusts: cheap, expendable, and tasty fried up with a dash of cayenne pepper.
The grant was set for three years, so this research concluded in 2019 but other researchers involved in the project have continued research in remote control of insects, neural circuit dynamics, and more. If you’ve got your own cyborg insect plans, the team’s studies have been posted online.