U.S. Navy funds bomb-sniffing bugs research

The human sense of smell isn't that great, and so humans have largely relegated the task of sniffing out items — non-pungent drugs, hidden bombs, missing people — to dogs. Dogs are great at what they do, but they pose some issues, as well. For one thing, training bomb-sniffing dogs is expensive. In addition, a dog can alert to something but it can't break down what it smells or give us any details. Bugs though? They may be the solution.

Washington University in St. Louis researchers have received a $750,000 three-year grant from the Office of Naval Research, according to a recent announcement from the university, to help fund research related to locust and systems that use them to detect bombs.

Speaking about the work, grant recipient and associate professor of biomedical engineering Baranidharan Raman said, "We expect this work to develop and demonstrate a proof-of-concept, hybrid locust-based, chemical-sensing approach for explosive detection."

It sounds like mad science, yes, but the researchers have a solid game plan in place. Raman points toward the sophisticated and very sensitive olfactory system locusts have, and the researchers plan to use that system as the basis for a so-called "bio-hybrid nose" capable of detecting specific chemicals...such as the type used in bombs.

Per past research, Raman and fellow researchers learned that locusts' brains experience dynamic neural activity triggered by odors the bug encounters. And, much like dogs, locust can be trained to sniff out specific odors even if they're in an environment with complex and multilayered odors from many sources.

Using some type of miniature low-power electronic devices, the team plans to monitor locusts' neural activity as they explore environments, doing so to decode what kind of odors the bugs are encountering based on their brain data. Taking it a step further, the researchers also plan to equip the bugs with a sort of remote-controlled nature using a plasmonic tattoo placed on the bugs wings. The tattoo can steer the locusts' flights by generating heat.

SOURCE: Washington University in St. Louis