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In world first, Israeli researchers connect real locust ear to robot enabling it to ‘hear’ commands

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“When the researchers clap once, the locust’s ear hears the sound and the robot moves forward; when the researchers clap twice, the robot moves backward,” Tel Aviv University said

By ILANIT CHERNICK

Tel Aviv University has clinched another world first, this time with something incredibly unique.

An interdisciplinary team from the university has fused the biological and technological fields by connecting the ear of a dead locust to a robot. Through this, the robot receives the ear’s electrical signals and responds accordingly.

“When the researchers clap once, the locust’s ear hears the sound and the robot moves forward; when the researchers clap twice, the robot moves backward,” the university said on Monday.

According to the researchers, they initially wanted to study how the advantages of biological systems could be integrated into technological systems, and how the senses of dead locusts could be used as sensors for a robot. 

The team, said Dr. Ben M. Maoz of the Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, “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.”

“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,” Maoz explained.

The interdisciplinary study was led by Idan Fishel, a joint master student under the joint supervision of Dr. Ben M. Maoz of the Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, Prof. Yossi Yovel and Prof. Amir Ayali, experts from the School of Zoology and the Sagol School of Neuroscience together with –, Dr. Anton Sheinin, Idan, Yoni Amit, and Neta Shavil. 

The researchers managed to achieve this fascinating fete but it didn’t come without its challenges. 

Above Image: The ‘hearing’ robot with the locust’s ear attached.
(Photo Credit: Tel Aviv University)
Featured Image: The locust ear inside the researcher’s Ear-on-a-Chip.
(Photo Credit: Tel Aviv University)

In the first stage, the team “built a robot capable of responding to signals it receives from the environment.” 

Then, together with the other departments taking part in the study and experiment, they managed to isolate and characterize the dead locust ear and keep it alive so it remained functional. They kept it alive long enough to successfully connect it to the robot. 

Following this success, they were able to find a way to pick up the signals received by the locust’s ear “in a way that could be used by the robot, thereby allowing it to be able to ‘hear’ the sounds and respond accordingly.”

Maoz explained that “In general, biological systems have a huge advantage over technological systems – both in terms of sensitivity and in terms of energy consumption,” emphasizing that their research has opened the door “to sensory integrations between robots and insects – and may make much more cumbersome and expensive developments in the field of robotics redundant.”

 Delving deeper into the process of how everything came together, Maoz said that “Prof. Ayali’s laboratory has extensive experience working with locusts, and they have developed the skills to isolate and characterize the ear.” 

Meanwhile, it was Yovel’s laboratory that built the robot and developed code, which enables the robot to respond to electrical auditory signals.
“My laboratory has developed a special device called an Ear-on-a-Chip, which allows the ear to be kept alive throughout the experiment by supplying oxygen and food to the organ and at the same time allows the electrical signals to be taken out of the locust’s ear and amplified and transmitted to the robot,” Maoz added.

He stressed that biological systems use a lot less energy in comparison to electronic systems. 

“They are miniature, and therefore also extremely economical and efficient,” Maoz said. “For the sake of comparison, a laptop consumes about 100 watts per hour, while the human brain consumes about 20 watts a day. Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should use it.” 

Dr. Ben M. Maoz of Tel Aviv University’s Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the Sagol School of Neuroscience.
(Photo Credit: Tel Aviv University)

Moaz also pointed out that the principle demonstrated in this experiment can be both 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,” he said. “Some animals know how to detect diseases [while] others can sense earthquakes.” 

“The sky is the limit,” Maoz concluded.

The results of the study were published in the prestigious journal Sensors.

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