Tech

This odor-smelling drone uses antennae from real moths

Researchers from the University of Washington proudly present the "Smellicopter."

Since the dawn of drones, people have used them for lots of things – recording video for movies; delivering takeaways or vital medical supplies; some drones (like the one pictured) have even been trained to intercept other drones and disable them with nets.

One thing drones have definitely never been able to do, however, is smell... at least, not until now.

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A team of researchers at University of Washington has invented what they're calling the "Smellicopter" – a tiny quadcopter drone that can actually sniff out specific odors and autonomously navigate toward them.

Here's a demonstration of the Smellicopter in action.

The Smellicopter avoids obstacles using infrared sensors that measure its surroundings 10 times every second. When something comes within about eight inches the drone stops and references its built-in protocol to navigate away from danger.

On the surface, it may seem somewhat impractical to invest so much time and energy into giving a cheap drone the gift of smell, that is until you consider the applications in safety.

Among other things, the drones could be used to sniff out and identify gas leaks or, in a search and rescue capacity, sniff out CO2 exhaled by humans that might be trapped in rubble.

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The ability to sniff out gas leaks isn't the only thing that makes the researchers' drone novel. The feat also involves a method of smell that borders on mad science.

The Smellicopter uses an antenna from a live moth (the Manduca sexta hawkmoth) to detect odors. According to researchers, the moths are anesthetized by being placed in the refrigerator after which, their antennas are amputated and carefully placed onto a small wire attached to the drone.

While the antenna only stays chemically active for four hours after being removed, researchers say that that life could be extended with refrigeration.

"Nature really blows our human-made odor sensors out of the water... By using an actual moth antenna with Smellicopter, we’re able to get the best of both worlds: the sensitivity of a biological organism on a robotic platform where we can control its motion."

Melanie Anderson, a UW doctoral student in mechanical engineering

A major advantage of using moth antennae to guide the drone to a smell source over more traditional methods is its ability to operate independently of GPS. This would make the drones particularly practical in situations where an external signal is hard to reach, such as inside mines, vents, or pipes.

It's unlikely that the Smellicopter will be sniffing out gas leaks en masse any time soon (it's still very much in the experimental phase) but researchers hope the robots could find their way into search and rescue situations where dogs or humans might be at risk. On the bright side...

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Moths everywhere can breathe easy... at least for now.