You read that headline right. According to The Source, the blog for Washington University of St. Louis, the school was recently awarded $750,000 in funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to transform short-horned grasshoppers into bomb-sniffing military assets.
Okay, so these insects may have been human’s enemy in agriculture since time began. But it also turns out that the sense of smell that makes locust swarms so efficient at tracking down meals also makes them ideal candidates for rooting out chemicals used to make bombs.
“Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution?” Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at the university, told The Source. “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.”
It sounds psycho, but Ramen claims the school will be able to harness the power of the insects’ antennae by surgically implanting tiny electrode sensors into the locust's brain to record and interpret chemical signals. The sensors would then be connected to a lightweight backpack that would decode information and send them wirelessly to a receiver.
The Source article makes the insect/tech hybrid sound interesting and wonky, but you don’t get the punch line, the real reason for the Naval investment until the closing line: “We expect this work to develop and demonstrate a proof-of-concept, hybrid locust-based, chemical-sensing approach for explosive detection,” Raman concludes. Ahhhh...now it all makes sense.
The school expects to have living, breathing, working prototypes in a year. So, when sometime in the future you stand at your backdoor and lament the massive cloud of cyborg locusts that now rule the world, remember you heard it here first.