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Scientists build tech that uses locusts to sniff out explosives

Provided by Baranidharan Raman/Washington University in St. Louis
Sensors placed on the insect monitor neural activity while they are freely moving, decoding the odorants present in their environment.

Imagine a day when law enforcement could rely on a tiny tool to scope out bombs hidden underground in potentially dangerous places.

That day could come soon, if scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have success with tapping the potential of locusts. Relying on locusts' keen sense of smell, researchers are building devices that use the insects' olfactory system to improve homeland security.

Armed with a $750,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to support the research for three years, Wash U scientists are attaching sensors to the locusts on a kind of a backpack. The sensors are connected to the part of the locusts' brain that processes odors in the environment.

If all goes according to plan, the sensors would send information to a computer chip that could decode it and alert authorities when a locust encounters a threat. 

It's too early to speculate how the technology could be used in the field, said Bahrani Raman, an associate professor of bioengineering at Wash U. But if its users wanted to examine an area that's possibly dangerous, they could place a locust atop a drone and send it in the area "to see if there's an explosive device, like a land mine."

Raman added that using locusts is more convenient than using dogs, which would require a more complicated surgery to implant the sensors. 

"We can do a surgery on [the locusts] and implant these electrodes into their brain," he said. "Within a few hours, they can recover and they can walk and behave as if nothing had happened."

Authorities could steer the locusts using a remote-control device that will be linked to a silk "tattoo" applied on their wings. The tattoo, developed by Srikanth Singamaeni, an associate professor of material science at Wash U, would generate a mild heat and prompt the locust to turn. 

Researchers expect to test a prototype in a year. 

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.