- In new research, scientists pitted cyborg locusts against common explosives odors.
- The sponsoring lab has been working with locusts for years.
- Robot parts are grafted into the locusts' brains with minimally invasive surgery.
Scientists say robotically doped locusts are able to register the smells of different explosives. By monitoring their firing neurons and “disrupting” their olfactory systems, scientists are able to train the locusts to differentiate very diverse materials that are also far outside their normal range of advantageous smell detection. The locusts “sat in a tiny vehicle” and were “driven around.”
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Locusts are having a big year—first was their erratically recurring biblical plague, then Animal Crossing: New Horizon accidentally taught Americans that a locust is just a grasshopper. Now, Barani Raman and his biomedical engineering colleagues at Washington University have published new research on “cyborg locusts” in the incredibly cyberpunk-sounding journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics: X.
Why are we fitting locusts with nose-boosting robotic body parts? That part is pretty simple: Our imitation noses are bad. From the study:
“Engineered devices for this task, popularly referred to as electronic noses, have limited capacity compared to the broad-spectrum abilities of the biological olfactory system. Therefore, we propose a hybrid bio-electronic solution that directly takes advantage of the rich repertoire of olfactory sensors and sophisticated neural computational framework available in an insect olfactory system.”
In his lab, Raman previously discovered locusts’ olfactory centers can be programmed using logic. “[R]esearchers found that in locusts, only a subset of neurons associated with a particular scent would fire when that scent was presented in a dynamic environment that included other scents” Washington University said in a statement.
Using “electrophysiological” conditioning and feedback, Raman and his colleagues trained the locusts’ neurons on simple logic operators. They published that research in Nature Communications:
“Notably, predictions from a linear logical classifier (OR-of-ANDs) that can decode information distributed in flexible subsets of neurons match results from behavioral experiments. In sum, our results suggest that a trade-off between stability and flexibility in sensory coding can be achieved using a simple computational logic.”
What the scientists noticed and experimented with was the clear relationship between the smell particles and direct action within the brain. The new research goes further. Prepared cyborg locusts are carted into simulated “danger” on a robot vehicle proxy, where they smell for evidence of explosives and mentally “report back” via the robotic attachments.
Locusts are tough, strong, and operable. Nonetheless, the researchers developed the locust version of laparoscopic surgery to ensure the postoperative insects were still basically okay.
“In this minimally-invasive surgical technique, only a minor incision in the head cuticle was made to expose the antennal lobe of the brain,” the scientists explain. “This small incision ensured that the locusts could still move their mouthparts and antenna freely.”
“As a proof-of-concept, we demonstrate that this part biological—part engineered system (i.e. a ‘biorobotic chemical sensing system’) can be used to rapidly detect and differentiate several different explosive vapors,” they conclude. “[W]e show how this concept can be extended to mobile robotic settings.”
Get ready for A Bug’s Life 2: The Hurt Locker.
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