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Robot capable of ‘hearing’ through transplanted locust ear, Israeli study finds

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Scientists who transplanted the ear of a locust into a robot found that the robot was capable of hearing in an unprecedented biological and technological discovery.

The Israeli scientists from Tel Aviv University found that the robot had been receiving the ear’s electric signals and responding accordingly, a statement released by the university revealed.

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The interdisciplinary study was recently published in the journal Sensors.

The researchers said that at the beginning of the study, the sought to examine how the advantages of biological systems could be integrated into technological systems, and how the senses of dead locust could be used as sensors for a robot.

“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,” said one of the study’s authors Dr. Ben Maoz.

“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,” he added.

To conduct the research, Maoz teamed up with lead researcher Idan Fishel, and Yossi Yovel and Ami Ayali, experts in Zoology and Neuroscience.

During the first stage of the study, the researchers built a robot capable of responding to signals it receives from the environment. Then, in a multidisciplinary collaboration, the researchers were able to isolate and characterize the dead locust ear and keep it alive and functional for long enough to successfully transplant it into the robot.

Tel Aviv University tests robot fitted with a locust ear. (Screengrab)
Tel Aviv University tests robot fitted with a locust ear. (Screengrab)

In the final stage, the researchers succeeded in finding a way to pick up the signals received by the locust’s ear in a way that could be used by the robot. At the end of the process, the robot was able to “hear” the sounds and respond accordingly.

“Prof. Ayali’s laboratory has extensive experience working with locusts, and they have developed the skills to isolate and characterize the ear,” Maoz explained.

“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.”

Maoz also stated that biological systems had a huge advantage over technological systems in terms of “sensitivity” and “energy consumption,” adding that the study’s success has opened up new avenues to explore “sensory integrations between robots and insects.”

He added that it “may make much more cumbersome and expensive developments in the field of robotics redundant.”

Biological systems expend negligible energy compared to electronic systems because they are “miniature, and therefore also extremely economical and efficient,” he said.

“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.”

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