Engineers from the University of Washington have created an autonomous and highly unusual drone called Smellicopter – it picks up odors and can follow them around obstacles.
The robot is based on a so-called “living” sensor. The essence is that the engineers took the antennae of the butterfly species Manduca sexta (Tobacco Crawler) and connected them to the drone’s electronics with tiny wires, which are brought to each end of the “sensor.
Such a circuit, the scientists said, responds more quickly and recovers faster after each perception. In addition, most human-made solutions are incapable of giving comparable accuracy in recognizing specific odors while in flight.
The drone can avoid obstacles – it has infrared sensors that measure the environment 10 times per second. The system detects smells of chemicals, gas leaks, explosive substances or survivors. The Smellicopter comes in handy for use in extreme conditions: in buildings after earthquakes or in areas with unexploded bombs.
During laboratory tests, the Smellicopter was able to fly behind smells that usually attract butterflies – such as the scent of flowers – without any problems. The scientists also noted that the Smellicopter doesn’t need GPS navigation, because it has a camera, which is used in the same way insects use their eyes.
The technology looks interesting, but there is one big but: the life of the “live” sensor is limited, after removal from the butterfly sensor remains biologically and chemically active only for four hours maximum. It is possible to extend the lifespan of the antennae by storing them in a refrigerator, the scientists noted.
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