Robot can hear through an ear of a locust

Nature is the best engineer we know. We can create many different sensors and microphones, but a simple ear is still more effective. Now scientists at Tel Aviv University have managed to separate the locust’s ear and connect it to a robot. And it works! This robot can hear commands through an ear of an insect.

Locust’s ear connected to a chip. Image credit: TAU

Locusts are grasshopper-like insects, mostly known for their negative impact on farms. Locust swarms can quickly devastate huge crop fields, leaving not much at all in their place. However, locusts are not just villains in the eyes of a farmer – they are also rather complex organisms with very interesting ears.

Obviously, a locust’s ear is a very compact device – this animal is quite small himself. However, it is also very complex. Locust’s ear has been described as something between a normal biological auditory device and an electronic microphone. Basically, locusts’ eardrums are tiny frequency analyzers, much more precise and robust than what we can create. But maybe we don’t need to create such sensors? Couldn’t we just borrow them from nature?

Scientists at Tel Aviv University have managed to separate locust’s ear and transplant it onto a chip connected to a robot. This was not an easy task – creating an interface between a dead biological device and an electronic system is a very complex and difficult undertaking. But they’ve managed to do it quickly. And it works – the robot can actually hear the vibrations in the air that we call sound.

Scientists programmed this robot so that it would move to one direction after hearing one clap and to the other after someone claps twice. This is not that complex of an information, but the robot does what it is intended to do. Perfectly. Of course, during this process some of the amazing abilities of the locust’s ear were lost, but it’s a nice foundation for future research.

You may be asking a very important question right now – why? Well, nature’s sensors are quite incredible and could be used in a variety of situations if we knew how to borrow them. Dr. Ben M. Maoz, supervisor of the study, explained: “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.”

In the future these biological sensors could be used to detect diseases, earthquakes or look for missing people. It will be interesting to see what other sensors – ears, tongues and eyes – scientists can borrow next.

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