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Smellicopter is an autonomous, scent-chasing drone made with real moth antennas

There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a strange year. So strange, in fact, that the idea of an obstacle-dodging, autonomous cyborg drone that uses a real live moth antenna to track down smells doesn’t sound too much like weird science fiction. That’s probably a good thing, too, because it’s something that researchers from the University of Washington have actually built. And they’ve called it Smellicopter, because … why the heck not?

“The ability to detect and localize odors has a vast range of potential applications,” Thomas Daniel, a UW professor of biology, told Digital Trends. “Essentially, anywhere we might use dogs for tracking or sensing odors is a potential application for the Smellicopter. It has … the unique advantage that it flies and can navigate in complex environments. Moreover, it avoids putting dogs or humans in harm’s way. Everything from detecting gas leaks to disease outbreaks in crops to the volatiles emitted from [improvised explosive device] are potential areas of application.”

Biomimicry, the idea of using the natural world for engineering inspiration, is nothing new. But using bits of real animals is. As it turns out, however, moths are so unbelievably good at amplifying chemical signals with their antennae to detect even a single scent molecule that no human-made sensor can compete.

A team led by the University of Washington has developed Smellicopter: an autonomous drone that uses a live antenna from a moth (brown arc on top of the drone) to navigate toward smells. Mark Stone/University of Washington

Smell ya later

“We use actual moth antennae from live moths,” Melanie Anderson, a UW graduate student, told Digital Trends. “The moths are anesthetized before the antennae are removed, and they are frozen for future use for teaching and research. The antennae are basically liquid-filled, straw-like tubes, so we can insert small wires into either end of a single antenna to measure the electrical signal produced … when it smells an odor. Moth antennae are much more sensitive, consume less power, and weigh less than portable man-made odor sensors.”

Once it’s separated, the moth antenna remains biologically and chemically active for up to four hours. This could be extended by storing it in the fridge. Once connected to the drone, the antenna is able to have its signals read electronically. Aside from the sensor, the researchers also added a pair of plastic fins to the back of the drone to create drag to help it remain constantly oriented upwind. Its four infrared sensors allow it to detect what’s going on around it 10 times per second and dodge obstacles accordingly.

“While electroantennograms are not new and have been used to read the signals from antennae for many years, putting antennae on a drone to detect odors while flying is a novel idea,” Anderson said. “Moths are quite efficient at locating odors and rely on their ability to do so for food, as well as mates. To be able to mimic their flight on a platform we can control is very exciting.”

The Smellicopter research was recently published in the journal IOP Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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