Meet Smellicopter: The drone that makes use of stay moth antennas to trace scents

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Melanie Anderson was a Ph.D. A mechanical engineering student at the University of Washington when she was doing this Odor jumpers, an autonomous drone that uses a live moth antenna to track smells and navigate them.

She and her team published their work in IOP Science, which describes the smellicopter as “a bio-hybrid odor-controlled autonomous palm-sized aircraft”.

In an interview, she said that one of the benefits of using drones like these little robots is going to places humans can’t. These places could be too dangerous, according to Drone Life, like an unstable structure or a region with hidden explosive devices.

(Photo: YouTube)
‘Smellicopter’ uses a moth antenna to locate the source of the odor. Screenshot from YouTube / UW (University of Washington)

Inclusion of nature in technology

A team led by Anderson developed the smellicopter, which navigates in the direction of smells and can detect and avoid obstacles in its path in the air. Anderson said that natural sensors still outperformed man-made odor sensors.

Using a live moth antenna with their smellicoptger, they were able to bring out the best of nature and technology to create a drone with the sensitivity of a biological organism on a robotic platform that humans can use to control their movements.

In the animal kingdom, moths use their antenna to sense various chemicals present in their environment and use them to navigate food sources or potential partners.

Biology professor and co-author of the study, Thomas Daniel, said the moth antenna cells amplify the chemical signals and do so efficiently. Their antenna can even pick up a scent molecule that activates many cellular reactions, a very efficient, specific and rapid mechanism.

ALSO READ: Police are now using automated drones for day-to-day operations

Make the smellicopter

The researchers used the manduca sexta hawkmoth’s antenna that they placed in the refrigerator to extend the expected amount of time the antenna was biologically and chemically active. If not, the antenna can only be used for four hours.

Anderson inserted wires into each antenna to connect them to a circuit and measure the average signal from the antenna cells. They then compared it to a man-made sensor by exposing it to a floral scent and ethanol. They found that the antenna responded faster than the sensor, and it took them less time to recover between bursts of scent.

According to the Washington University press release, the researchers added the antenna sensor to a commercially available open source quadcopter handheld drone that added some special features. They put two plastic fins on their backs to create drag that helps the drone keep facing the wind.

Assistant mechanical engineer and co-author on the study, Sawyer Fuller, said that this concept was a genius from a robotics perspective. “The classic approach in robotics is to add more sensors and possibly create a fancy algorithm or use machine learning to estimate wind direction. It turns out all you have to do is add a fin.”

Smellicopter doesn’t require human help to navigate the scents and can avoid obstacles which make it perfect for exploring indoor or underground spaces like mines or pipes.


READ MORE: Engineers create nature-inspired drones with four wings that fold

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