Scientists on the College of Washington are growing a “smellicopter” drone that makes use of a dwell moth antenna to chase scents

The palm-sized device could one day be engineered to detect explosives and gas leaks, or it could even be used by medical laboratories to detect disease

Here is a technological breakthrough that has many implications for diagnostics and clinical laboratory testing. Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) are doing everything that can be achieved by combining technology and biology. They developed “smellicopters,” a flying drone that uses a live moth antenna to search for smells.

According to their published study, UW scientists believe that an odor-controlled drone “can reduce human exposure and dramatically improve performance in tasks such as locating disaster survivors, dangerous gas leaks, incipient fires or explosives.”

“Nature really blows our man-made odor sensors out of the water,” lead author Melanie Anderson, a UW graduate student in mechanical engineering, told UW News. “By using a moth antenna with a smellicopter, we can get the best of both worlds: the sensitivity of a biological organism on a robot platform on which we can control its movement.”

The researchers believe their smellicopter is the first odor-sensitive biohybrid flying robotic system to incorporate a live moth antenna that harnesses the insect’s excellent odor detection and odor localization capabilities.

In their article entitled “A Bio-Hybrid Odor-Guided Autonomous Palm-Sized Air Vehicle” published in the IOPscience journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, the researchers wrote: “Biohybrid systems integrate living materials into synthetic devices and use their respective advantages for dissolving You challenging technical problems. … Our robot is the first flying biohybrid system that successfully localizes odor in a confined space. It can do this while detecting and avoiding obstacles in its trajectory. We show that insect antennas react faster than metal oxide gas sensors and enable odor localization at an improved speed compared to previous flying robots. Through the use of the insect antennas, we anticipate a possible route to improved chemical specificity and sensitivity by taking advantage of recent advances in gene editing. “

How does it work?

In nature, a moth uses its antennae to sense chemicals in its environment and to navigate to food sources or a potential mate.

“Cells in a moth antenna amplify chemical signals,” study co-author Thomas Daniel, PhD, UW professor of biology, told UW News. “The moths do this really efficiently – a scent molecule can trigger a lot of cellular reactions, and that’s the trick. This process is very efficient, specific and quick. “

To keep the moth antennas “alive”, scientists place them Manduca Sexta Hawk Moths (above) in a refrigerator to numb them before removing their antennae. After separation from the living moth, the antenna remains “biologically and chemically active” for up to four hours. Cooling the antennas further extends this length of time, the researchers explained in the article UW News. (Photo copyright: University of Washington.)

Because the moth antenna is hollow, researchers can insert wires into the ends of the antenna. By connecting the antenna to a circuit, you can measure the average signal from all cells in the antenna. Compared to a metal oxide gas sensor, the antenna sensor responded more quickly to a flowery scent. It also took less time to recover between bursts of smell.

Anderson compared the antenna-drone circuit to a human heart monitor.

“Much like a heart monitor that measures the electrical voltage the heart produces when it beats, we measure the electrical signal produced by the antenna when it smells like odor,” Anderson told WIRED. “And in a very similar way, the antenna generates these pointed impulses in response to odor spots.”

Do a drone hunt like a moth

Anderson told WIRED that her team programmed the drone to hunt for scents using the same technique that moths use to target a scent known as crosswind casting.

“If the wind changes or you off course a little, you lose the smell,” said Anderson. “And so you throw cross winds to try to take up that path again. In this way, the smellicopter gets closer and closer to the source of the odor. “

However, researchers had to figure out how to hold the $ 195 commercially available Crazyflie drone against the wind. Fix, co-author and co-advisor Sawyer Fuller, PhD, UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering, told UW News that two plastic louvers should be added to create drag and keep the vehicle on course.

“From a robotics standpoint, this is a genius,” said Fuller. “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 need to do is add one fin. “

On the “Smellicopter” drone (above) developed at the University of Washington in Seattle, a living moth antenna is attached to a wire sharply in an arc. The autonomous drone uses the moth antenna to navigate in the direction of smells. By connecting the antenna to a circuit board, the UW researchers were able to study the drone’s response to a touch of floral scent. The odor tracking capabilities were found to be better than that of a man-made sensor. (Photo copyright: University of Washington.)

Other uses for odor detection robots

While this breakthrough is years away from any practical clinical application, the next step for the scientific team is to use gene editing to construct moths with antennae that are sensitive to a particular chemical of interest, such as those found in explosives.

“I think it’s a powerful concept,” said Antonio Loquercio, a robotics graduate in machine learning at the University of Zurich who studies drone navigation, to WIRED. “Nature gives us many examples of living organisms whose life depends on this ability. This could also have a big impact on autonomous machines – not just drones – that could use smells to find survivors after an earthquake, for example, or to identify gas leaks in a man-made environment. “

Could one day a palm-sized autonomous device be used not only to detect explosives and gas leaks, but also to detect diseases?

As clinical pathologists and medical laboratory scientists know, dogs have been shown to be able to detect disease using their heightened sense of smell.

And on a human level, Dark Daily reported in “Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s Disease In Patients Before Symptoms, Help Researchers Develop A New Clinical Laboratory Test” on the case of a Scottish woman who demonstrated the extraordinary ability to do the How to accurately smell Parkinson’s disease before clinical laboratory tests discovered it.

Hence, it is not inconceivable that odor-seeking technology could one day be part of clinical laboratory tests for certain diseases.

This latest research is yet another example of how breakthroughs in unrelated areas of science have the potential for creating diagnostic tools that could one day be useful for medical laboratories.

– Andrew Downing Peck

Related information:

The smellicopter is an obstacle avoidance drone and uses a live moth antenna to detect odors

A palm-sized odor-controlled autonomous bio-hybrid aircraft

This drone sniffs smells with a real moth antenna

A woman who can smell Parkinson’s disease in patients before symptoms appear can help researchers develop a new clinical laboratory test

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