Technology and insects: how locusts could be used to locate explosives

Anyone whose ever been caught in a swarm of locusts probably doesn’t rate the breed of short-horned grass hoppers particularly highly; however recent developments in technology may give the insects a whole new purpose.

Scientists are currently in the process of working on a technology that they hope will allow locusts to detect explosives using their sense of smell.  Researchers say that heat-generating ‘tattoos’ will enable groups of locusts to be guided into dangerous or remote areas via remote control. Neural signals from the locust’s brain will then be processed by an on-board low-power processing chip that will decode the information and send a wireless alert back to the authorities. The results will then appear on a simple LED, showing red for presence of explosives and green for absent.

The ability to smell, known as ‘olfaction’, is considered a primary sensory quality in insects whereas it is more of an aesthetic sense for humans. However locusts, much like humans, can identify a particular smell even when it is mixed in with other odours. Locusts can be trained to pinpoint and recall a smell such as dangerous chemicals.

In order to utilise this quality, Professor Srikanth will be creating a plasmonic “tattoo” made of a biocompatible silk that will be applied to the locusts’ wings to generate mild heat and help steer them towards particular locations by remote control.

It is anticipated that a prototype for the technology will be ready within a year, and if it passes the required rigorous testing the locusts could be ready in less than two years. The researchers also believes this new sensor technology could help to detect medical conditions in humans that are currently diagnosed by smell.

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