Yet another intriguing dispatch from our Didn't See That One Coming bureau: A team of U.S. engineers just got funding from the federal government to turn locusts into bio-robotic bomb sniffers.
The rather surprising news comes out of Washington University in St. Louis, where biomedical engineer Baranidharan Raman received a three-year, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR). The project? Raman and his team hope to use the highly sensitive locust olfactory system as the basis for a sensing system to detect explosives.
RELATED: Locusts: A Biblical Phenomenon Explained
Evidently, locusts have a powerful and unique sense of smell that scientists can tap into. By way of a surgically implanted electrode in the bug's brain, the locust transmits the presence of a particular odor to a low-power, low-weight computer chip situated in a kind of teeny-tiny locust backpack. That chip, in turn, can send the information wirelessly back to a remote operator.
It's essentially the same process used by bomb-sniffing dogs or other animals, researchers say, just adapted to the neural processes of insects. The locust's relatively simple brains light up with a specific type of electrical activity when a designated odor is detected. Locusts trained to recognize certain odors can do so even when the target odor is mixed with other scents or in different background conditions.
The real trick is getting the locusts to fly into the area you want them to go sniffing around. To that end, Raman's team has developed an entirely separate system of silk "tattoos" that are applied to the insect's wings and allow an operator to essentially pilot the insect remotely.
RELATED: Drug-Sniffing Car Smells Chemicals a Quarter Mile Away
Researchers say that each of the separate systems -- the sniffing, the wireless transmission and the remote-control flying -- have been successfully tested. Now the job is to integrate everything into a reliable biorobotic sensor system. Bomb-sniffing locusts have a number of potential benefits: They could potentially fly over and into places animals and robots can't reach, and they're less likely to trigger explosions.
The li'l cyborg robots could also be used to detect chemical leaks or even perform medical diagnoses that rely on sniffing out certain organic chemicals. According to a BBC followup report, Raman estimates the prototype will be ready for testing in a year and, if successful, the system could be deployed in less than two years.
So, yes -- remote controlled cyborg locust sniff-bots. It sounds a little mad scientist-y, but that can be fun, right? Right?
WATCH VIDEO: Facts About Some of the Creepiest Bugs in the World