Navy experimenting with ‘cyborg locusts’ to find explosives

A desert locust on a maize plant in the Kenyan village of Katitika.
(Associated Press)

Call the swat team.

Bomb-sniffing “cyborg locusts” could be the next wave in national security, according to military news agency Stars and Stripes.

Washington University researchers, funded by the U.S. Navy, reportedly indicate that locusts can differentiate between TNT, ammonium nitrate and other bomb-making materials, and locate their origins almost immediately. Locusts are known to have a well-honed sense in their antennae, but scientists weren’t certain the bugs could detect objects that are foreign to their natural environment.

Biomedical engineering professor Barani Raman and his team’s $1.1-million study found that apparently they can.


“It turns out ... the insects do have sensors for them and very exquisite sensors ... because they can pick up some of these odors at extremely low concentrations — of parts per billion and below,” Raman reportedly learned.

Billions of locusts have swarmed over at least eight East African countries, consuming crops so rapidly that experts fear widespread famine.

If scientists can better understand the brains and receptors of locusts, they might be able to develop swarms of artificial “electronic noses” superior to what’s being used to search for explosives now, according to Stars and Stripes.

Because of the simple nature of a bug’s brain, researchers are able to implant technologies that record what locusts smell and how it translates. Locusts are also physically suited to carry “backpacks” containing equipment to read their neurological calculations, the report said.

The study found American locusts worked better in teams than they did as individuals when looking for specific scents. A swarm of seven locusts reportedly turned up positive results 80% of the time. That number dropped by 20% when a single locust was put on the job.

The advancement of cyborg locusts could put dogs out of work. While canines make for good bomb sniffers, they come with more baggage than a locust, which is unlikely to be interested in pleasing its human counterpart. Locusts are also cheaper and easier to maintain.

A locust’s antenna is reportedly made up of 50,000 neurons with varying characteristics. Some swarms of locusts can travel more than 80 miles per day, according to National Geographic. They are believed to have been adapting and evolving since prehistoric times.