Scientists Engineered Cyborg Grasshoppers That Sniff Out Bombs

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This team of scientists designed short-lived cyborg grasshoppers to sniff out explosives.

Besides dogs, future bomb-sensing units may employ cyborg grasshoppers to sniff out explosives, according to a New Scientist report.

Cyborg Grasshoppers That Identify Bombs

A group of scientists headed by Barani Raman at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, have tapped into the olfactory system of the American grasshopper, “Schistocera americana,” to develop biological bomb detectors.

The olfactory receptor neurons of insect antennae identify local airborne chemical odours. The neurons then transmit electrical signals to a section of the insect brain termed the antennal lobe. Every grasshopper antenna has approximately 50,000 such neurons.

The St. Louis group blew vapors of numerous explosive materials onto grasshopper antennae, including the smoke of trinitrotoluene (TNT), and its precursor 2,4-dinitrotoluene (DNT). The experts used non-explosive controls like benzaldehyde and hot air, the first of which is the main ingredient for bitter almond oil.

While embedding electrodes in the antennal lobes of grasshoppers, the team found groups of neurons that started when exposed to explosive materials. The further examination of electrical signals allowed them to differentiate explosive from non-explosive vapours, and also from one another.

Short life cycle, long term applications

To check the electrical activity in real-time, the team prepared the grasshoppers with lightweight sensor backpacks able of recording and wirelessly conveying information to a computer.

The cyborg grasshoppers’ brains effectively continued to identify explosives for up to seven hours, post-op, until the insects became exhausted, and died.

The process immobilizes grasshoppers, so the scientists put them on a remote-controlled, wheeled platform, to study the insects’ capability to detect explosives at changing locations and direction.

Financed by the US Office of Naval Research, the researchers believe the grasshoppers could see future uses in cases of great advantage to homeland security.

Since real-world chemicals could be dispersed by changing environmental forces — like wind — the scientists also studied the impacts of sensory information combined from numerous grasshoppers.

A seven-grasshopper data set presented an average accuracy of 80%, considerably higher than the 60% attained by a singular grasshopper.

While the scientists didn’t test the grasshoppers’ bomb-sniffing capability when numerous odors were present at the same time, bomb threats of the future may see a group of locusts descend, in place of bomb-sniffing dogs to which we’ve become familiar.

 

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