A team of engineers from Washington University in St. Louis is looking to capitalize on the sense of smell in locusts to create new biorobotic sensing systems that could be used in homeland security applications.
Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, has received a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to use the highly sensitive locust olfactory system as the basis to develop a bio-hybrid nose. Joining Raman in the research are engineering colleagues Srikanth Singamaneni, associate professor of materials science, and Shantanu Chakrabartty, professor of computer science & engineering.
Biological sensing systems are far more complex than their engineered counterparts, including the chemical sensing system responsible for our sense of smell, Raman said. Although the sense of smell is a primitive sense, it is conserved across many vertebrate and invertebrate species.
“It appears that biology converged onto a solution for the problem of non-invasive, or ‘standoff’ chemical sensing and has replicated the same design and computing principles everywhere,” Raman said. “Therefore, understanding the fundamental olfactory processing principle is necessary to engineer solutions inspired by biology.”
For several years and with prior funding from the ONR, Raman has been studying how sensory signals are received and processed in relatively simple brains of locusts. He and his team have found that odors prompt dynamic neural activity in the brain that allow the locust to correctly identify a particular odor, even with other odors present. In other research, his team also has found that locusts trained to recognize certain odors can do so even when the trained odor was presented in complex situations, such as overlapping with other scents or in different background conditions.
“Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution?”