“Smellicopter” makes use of an amputated moth antenna to navigate in the direction of smells

Take a look at the “Smellicopter”: a small drone equipped with a live antenna of a moth that it can use to navigate in the direction of smells.

It worked – and when they compared its performance to an artificial, man-made odor sensor, the moth antenna triumphed: the drone navigated toward an odor faster.

Why try to improve nature with biomimickry when you can use nature for yourself? Judging by the dry levels of technical innovation, this is the hell wise.

Judged by a more Freudian standard, this experiment quite trembles with creepiness. It is very unsettling to see a cyborg robot equipped with parts from live moths. Apparently the moth antenna stays active for four hours after it is removed from the insect (they stun the moths, by the way). To get a signal from it, they simply let electrical current through. In a way, I find this last detail most pathologically fascinating: that parts of our biology function properly as detachable, discrete plug-in cards for electronics and even adapt well to the voltage specifications of microprocessors.

I don’t want to burden this experiment too much – it’s really interesting. And as they point out, improving odor detection has some very practical uses, including tracking down the unexploded regulations that are ruining the lives of people in previous combat zones.

From the university’s press release:

“Nature really blows our man-made odor sensors out of the water,” said lead author Melanie Anderson, a UW graduate student in mechanical engineering. “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 moth uses its antennae to sense chemicals in its environment and to navigate to food sources or potential partners.

“Cells in a moth antenna amplify chemical signals,” said co-author Thomas Daniel, a UW professor of biology who supervised Anderson’s doctoral thesis. “The moths do this really efficiently – a scent molecule can trigger a lot of cellular reactions, and that’s the trick. This process is super efficient, specific and fast.” [snip]

“This is a genius from a robotics standpoint,” said co-author and consultant Sawyer Fuller, an UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “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.”

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