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Researchers Connect Locust Ear to Robot

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In what is an incredible development in robotics, researchers at Tel Aviv University have successfully connected the ear of a dead locust to a robot. The robot was able to receive the ear’s electrical signals and respond, and the researchers demonstrated that if they clap once, the locust’s ear hears the sound, resulting in the robot moving forward. If the researchers clap twice, the robot moves backward.

The project was led by Idan Fishel, a joint masters student supervised by Dr. Ben M. Maoz of the Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the School of Neuroscience. Other names involved in the work include Professors Yossi Yovel and Amir Ayali from the School of Zoology and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, as well as Dr. Antonny Sheinin, Idan, Yoni Amit, and Neta Shavil.

The research was published in the journal Sensors.

Integrating Biological Systems Into Technological Systems

The team first started by examining the advantages of biological systems and how they could be integrated into technological systems. They also looked at how dead locust senses could be used as robot sensors.

“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,” Dr. Maoz says. “Our task was to replace the robot’s electronic microphone with a dead insect’s ear, use the ear’s ability to detect the electrical signals from the environment, in this case vibrations in the air, and, using a special chip, convert the insect input to that of the robot.”

The researchers first constructed a robot that could respond to environmental signals, followed by isolating and characterizing a dead locust ear and keeping it alive. In the final stage of the research, the team was able to come up with a way to utilize the signals received by the insect’s ear so that they could be used by the robot. According to the researchers, the robot could “hear” the sounds and then respond accordingly. 

“Prof. Ayali’s laboratory has extensive experience working with locusts, and they have developed the skills to isolate and characterize the ear,” explains Dr. Maoz. “Prof. Yovel’s laboratory built the robot and developed code that enables the robot to respond to electrical auditory signals. And my laboratory has developed a special device — Ear-on-a-Chip — that allows the ear to be kept alive throughout the experiment by supplying oxygen and food to the organ, while allowing the electrical signals to be taken out of the locust’s ear and amplified and transmitted to the robot.

More Sensitive and Energy Efficient

In many ways, biological systems are far more superior than technological systems. They are not only more sensitive, but they also are more energy efficient. 

“In general, biological systems have a huge advantage over technological systems — both in terms of sensitivity and in terms of energy consumption,” Dr. Maoz continues. “This initiative of Tel Aviv University researchers opens the door to sensory integrations between robots and insects — and may make much more cumbersome and expensive developments in the field of robotics redundant.”

“It should be understood that biological systems expend negligible energy compared to electronic systems. They are miniature, and therefore also extremely economical and efficient. For the sake of comparison, a laptop consumes about 100 watts per hour, while the human brain consumes about 20 watts a day,” Dr. Maoz says. “Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should use it. 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.”

Many advancements in the field of robotics can be attributed to inspiration from nature. This is especially true when it comes to insects, which are constantly drawn upon by researchers trying to recreate their efficiencies among robotic systems.