Thursday, July 7, 2016


Where taxidermy meets cybernetics meets aeronautics meets morality: The Copter Cat

Locusts are now being put to use as remote control bomb sniffers. First though, let us not forget that it was only a year ago that the commercial market saw its first real moral problem with the intersection between living creatures and automation: cockroaches were sold with little backpacks that were meant to be wired directly into their motor cortex and steered around by little biohacking boys and girls. And don’t forget this guy who turned his dead cat into a remote control helicopter.

Back to the locusts. I don’t know about you, but I thought locusts looked like grasshoppers, and at about the same size. But in the picture used for the leading article here at the BBC, this thing is as big as my forearm. So maybe these are giant locusts. (The name locust is derived from the word for lobster.)

Their wings will have a biocompatible plasmonic tattoo imprinted on them which will heat up by remote control to manipulate the locust’s wings to fly one way or another in order for them to be guided into dangerous or remote areas. A tiny chip interfacing with the locust-olfactory-brain will then detect explosives chemicals. A single sensor can only detect a single chemical, but a locust’s nose-brain is so much more effective than any computer we know. Not only does it have more sensors, but they combine together to be able to recognize thousands of chemicals in their environment, and they can do this despite there being so many chemicals around us in the first place. The locust is much more accurate than anything we can make.

Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science Washington University and (locust olfaction expert) explains in the BBC article: "Even the state-of-the-art miniaturised chemical-sensing devices have a handful of sensors. On the other hand, if you look at the insect antennae, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types." The robo-locosts – both the insect and their fitted chip – will be trained to sniff out specific smells – not specific molecules, mind you, but “smells,” as in the holistic olfactory identity of a thing, which is more complex than a single molecule.

Instead of making a fully artificial drone-nose, it makes more sense to mix a bit of both. We know how to make things fly like an insect already so that isn’t the bonus; but the nose, or the insect olfactory system to be specific (they don’t have nostrils but antennae) cannot yet be replicated. In fact, we’re nowhere near it. As the venture to create the first high fidelity electronic nose ramps up and up, it looks like we might have to change course a bit and take a page out of Mary Shelley’s book. Frankensteins for life. 

BBC News, July 2016

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