Tag Archives: locust

This robot hears with the ears of a locust

The locust ear inside the chip. Credit: Tel Aviv University.

In an unprecedented integration of biological systems into technological systems, researchers in Israel showed how the senses of a dead locust can be used as a sensor for a robot. Instead of a microphone, the robot used the dead insect’s ears to detect sounds and respond accordingly.

“We chose the sense of hearing, because it can be easily compared to existing technologies, in contrast to the sense of smell, for example, where the challenge is much greater,” says Dr. Ben Maoz of Tel Aviv University.

Maoz closely worked with Prof. Amir Ayali, who is an expert in locusts working at the university’s School of Zoology. Previously, Ayali’s lab was able to isolate and characterize locust ears.

This expertise proved invaluable when the researchers removed the dead locust ear and kept it functional for long enough to be connected to a robot developed by Maoz and colleagues. The locust ear remained functional despite being removed from the insect’s body thanks to a special device called Ear-on-a-Chip that supplies oxygen and food to the organ. Wires connected to the output allow electrical signals to be taken out of the locust ear and amplified for transmission to the robot’s processing unit.

The Robot experiment. Credit: Tel Aviv University.

During experiments, when the researchers clapped once, the locust’s ear picked up the sound, whose signal commanded the robot to move forward, a pre-programmed instruction. When the robot heard two claps, it moved backward.

But is the locust ear better than a microphone? That’s beside the point. The purpose of the study was to push the boundaries of what we can do in terms of integrating biological systems into technological systems or vice-versa.

Credit: Tel Aviv University.

Our technology might seem impressive, but that’s really nothing compared to biological systems that are the product of more than a billion years of evolution. The human brain, the most complex information processing unit in the known universe, uses less energy than a lightbulb. One single gram of DNA can store 215 petabytes (215 million gigabytes) of data. Clearly, there’s enormous potential in integrating biology into our technology.

“It should be understood that biological systems expend negligible energy compared to electronic systems. They are miniature, and therefore also extremely economical and efficient,” Maoz said.

“The principle we have demonstrated can be used and applied to other senses, such as smell, sight and touch. For example, some animals have amazing abilities to detect explosives or drugs; the creation of a robot with a biological nose could help us preserve human life and identify criminals in a way that is not possible today. Some animals know how to detect diseases. Others can sense earthquakes. The sky is the limit,” he added.

The findings appeared in the journal Sensors.

A second wave is looming over Africa. A locust second wave, that is

Despite a year of control efforts, a new generation of desert locust swarms is now threatening the agricultural livelihoods and food security of millions in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. The United Nations is appealing for funds to support surveillance and control operations in the most-affected countries.

Image credit FAO

The other plague

Locust infestations have increased in the past few months, especially in Ethiopia and Somalia due to favorable weather and rainfall. Locust opulations are now predicted to increase even more in the coming months and extend across the region, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

“We have achieved much, but the battle against this relentless pest is not yet over,” said the Director-General of FAO, QU Dongyu, in a statement. “We must not waiver. Locusts keep growing day and night and risks are exacerbating food insecurity for vulnerable families across the affected region.”

Locusts have caused famines and widespread destruction since the time of Egyptian pharaohs — famously being one of the biblical plagues. However, in recent times, the pests have become more and more aggressive. FAO estimates desert locust swarms could threaten the livelihoods of 10% of the world’s population if current trends continue unabated.

The most effective way to fight locust outbreaks is by mass aerial sprays of pesticides. However, many countries lack the financial resources and infrastructure required to mount a long-range pest management strategy. This is why governments plagued by locusts are left scrambling for solutions.

More than 1.3 million hectares of locust infestations have been treated in ten countries since January thanks to international support and a response campaign led by FAO. This has helped to prevent the loss of about 2.7 million tons of cereal worth $800 million, which is enough to feed 18 million people a year.

However, the struggle is far from over. New locust swarms are already forming and threatening to re-invade northern Kenya and breeding is also underway on both sides of the Red Sea, posing a new threat to Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and Yemen. This was worsened by the cyclone Gati, which allowed locusts to expand.

The second wave

When plentiful rain falls and annual green vegetation develops, locusts can increase rapidly in numbers and, within a month or two, start to concentrate and become gregarious. Unless checked, this can lead to the formation of small groups or bands of wingless hoppers or swarms of winged adults.

Controlling these swarms is complicated by several factors. The swarm is highly mobile, migrating from 50 to more than 100 km in a day; the total invasion period frequently occurs in a relatively brief time, sometimes as short as a month; swarms are variable in size and can extend up to thousands of hectares. So basically, you’ve got a huge but very mobile wave you need to control somehow — and it’s not easy.

The FAO argues that countries in the Horn of Africa are now much better prepared than for the last invasion. The UN agency has so far received $200 million from donors, which has allowed to rapidly scale up locust response capacity. Over 1,500 control personnel have been trained and 110 spraying vehicles are operational.

Still, FAO is now asking for another $40 million in donations to increase surveillance and control activities next year. More than 35 million people are already acutely food insecure in the five countries most affected by locusts, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan and Yemen, and this could worsen with the current outbreak.

“We lost so much of our pastures and vegetation because of the locusts and as a result we are still losing a good number of our livestock,” Gonjoba Guyo, a pastoralist in North Horr sub-country in northern Kenya, told BBC. “I have lost 14 goats, four cows and two camels because of the locust outbreak and now there is lots of fear.”

Massive locust swarms hit East Africa

Crops and livelihoods are being hit in large parts of East Africa by a plague of desert locusts, fueled by unusually warm weather. The swarms, carrying hundreds of millions of insects, are already affecting Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, destroying vegetation from crops and pastures.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The swarms of desert locusts loom like buzzing dark clouds on the horizon, scouring the land in search for food. They are already affecting some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, such as Kenya and Somalia. Authorities are trying to contain the swarm, with limited success.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said the outbreak could soon spread even further as favorable ecological conditions for the locust breeding will continue until June.

Despite not being currently affected, South Sudan and Uganda could soon be next.

“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion. FAO is activating fast-track mechanisms that will allow us to move swiftly to support governments in mounting a collective campaign to deal with this crisis,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said in a statement.

Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia had seen such massive swarms of locusts for over 25 years. The locusts are now spreading fast and heading toward Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, known as the country’s “breadbasket.” This could have severe consequences for food security all around the region.

While still looking at the reasons, the World Meteorological Organization said that widespread and heavy rains seen in East Arica since October have contributed to the explosion in locusts. Rainfall from October to November was 300% above average across the Horn of Africa.

The ability of a locust to survive largely depends on the weather. Female prefers to lay their eggs in sandy and moist soil as they need such moisture to fully develop. Once the eggs hatch, they also need fresh vegetation to survive – which explains why they target the crops.

The record rain registered in the region was mainly triggered by a shift in sea surface temperatures, called the Indian Ocean Dipole or “El Niño of the Indian Ocean.” This also caused a record amount of tropical cyclone activity in the North Indian Ocean, researchers argued.

“Unusually high rainfall in desert and savanna can definitely lead to blooms of rich vegetation that swarming insects like locusts will readily take advantage of,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jim Andrews said. “The climate across the affected areas varies from favorably moist to desert.”

The FAO has said that the locust swarms could grow to 500 times their current size by June if left unchecked. Rapid respond measures were recommended by international agencies, including aerial pest control so to slow the locust, the oldest migratory insect in the world.

There were warning signs, as FAO alerted back in November over the locust infestation in Ethiopia, claiming it would soon expand if it wasn’t managed. Farmers in the Amhara region of Ethiopia lost all their crops. Even a passenger plane was taken off course in Ethiopia last month because of a locust swarm.

“Prevention and control measures must be scaled up to contain further spread of the desert locust,” Workneh Gebeyehu, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, said in a press release. “Countries must act urgently to avoid a food security crisis in the region.”

cyborg locust

Cyborg locusts might one day detect explosives and diseases

cyborg locust

Credit: BARANIDHARAN RAMAN

Why build some tech from scratch when nature did all the dirty work for you over millions of years of evolution? That was the thinking behind an innovative project led by Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science Washington University, which aims to use microchip-enabled locusts to sniff out explosives. The project received a $750,000 grant from the US Office of Naval Research and, if found suitable, swarms of locusts could start sniffing for bombs as early as two years from now.

You might not have known this, but locusts have a very keen sense of smell. Each of their antennae is littered with hundreds of thousands of chemical sensors that convert odors into electrical signals, which are then transmitted to the circuits of neurons in the brain.

Previously, Raman and colleagues devised a set of experiments to see whether locusts could be Pavlovian conditioned — namely, to associate one particular stimulus that induces a specific response with a new stimulus. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first demonstrated this form of conditioning in the 1890s in his famous experiments in which dogs were trained to associate the sound of a bell with food. In other words, a neutral stimulus introduced an automated response.

Using various odors, Raman coaxed his lab locusts to automatically respond to the stimuli with an average response time of 500 milliseconds. “The locusts robustly recognized and responded to the trained odor whether it was presented alone or after another odor, but their response time and behavior were less predictable when the trained odor followed a similar odor that evoked highly overlapping neural activity,” said Raman.

Now, a year later, Raman’s team wants to exploit this extraordinary sense of smell to sniff out bombs. Right now, dogs are employed throughout airports or border crossings to detect explosives, drugs or other illicit chemicals, owing to their remarkable sense of smell. But such dogs take years to train and can be in short supply. Locusts, on the other hand, could be just as good as dogs and might be bred by the thousands at a time.

“The canine olfactory system still remains the state-of-the-art sensing system for many engineering applications, including homeland security and medical diagnosis,” Raman said in a statement. “However, the difficulty and the time necessary to train and condition these animals, combined with lack of robust decoding procedures to extract the relevant chemical sending information from the biological systems, pose a significant challenge for wider application.

“We expect this work to develop and demonstrate a proof-of-concept, hybrid locust-based, chemical-sensing approach for explosive detection.”

To control the locusts, the researchers devised an interesting mind-control device. Heat generating “tattoos” would be placed on insect’s wings whose mild heat can be remotely triggered and control. This heat spurs the locusts to fly in a certain direction. Meanwhile, an on board low-power chip placed on the locust’s torso decodes any odor-related electrical signals sent by the antennae’s chemical sensors. This information is then quickly relayed to an authorized person through radio waves. A simple set of LED lights, then flashes: “red” for a bomb, “green” for all clear.

“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,” Raman told the BBC.

Raman estimates the first prototype might be ready for testing within a year. He also envisions his cyborg locusts sniffing all sorts of chemicals, besides bombs. For instance, these insects could be used in the medical sector to diagnose diseases. Dogs, for instance, have been shown to detect breast and lung cancers with an accuracy between 90 and 95 percent.