A tiny drone uses body parts of a moth to detect chemicals

Engineers at the University of Washington have repurposed the biology of the moth instead of inventing technological alternatives. This is how the new “Smellicopter” appeared – a tiny drone that analyzes odors.

One of the huge advantages of drones is that these small robots can travel to places inaccessible to humans, including areas that might be too dangerous, such as unstable structures after a natural disaster or regions with unexploded devices.

Researchers are interested in developing devices that can sniff out chemicals in the air to locate survivors of natural disasters, gas leaks, explosives, and more. But most human-made sensors are not sensitive enough and fast enough to detect and process certain odors.

A team of scientists led by the University of Washington has developed Smellicopter: an autonomous drone that uses a moth’s living antennae to navigate smells. The helicopter can also detect obstacles and avoid them while flying.

The moth uses its antennae to sense chemicals in the environment and travel to food sources or potential mates.

The team used the antennae of the Manduca sexta for the Smellicopter. The researchers placed the moth in the refrigerator to numb it before removing the antenna. After separation from a living butterfly, the antenna remains biologically and chemically active for up to four hours. This time span can be increased by keeping the antennas in the refrigerator, the researchers said.

By adding tiny wires to either end of the antenna, the researchers could connect it to an electrical circuit and measure the average signal from all of the antenna’s cells. The team then compared it to a typical human-made sensor, placing both on one end of a wind tunnel and creating odors that both sensors respond to a floral scent and ethanol, a type of alcohol. The antenna reacted faster.

To create the Smellicopter, the team added an antenna sensor to a portable, commercially available open-source quadcopter platform that allows users to add custom functionality. The researchers also added two plastic fins to the rear of the drone to create resistance and help it navigate upwind at all times.

The Helicopter can also avoid obstacles using four infrared sensors to measure its surroundings 10 times per second. Another advantage of the Smellicopter is that it doesn’t need GPS. Instead, he uses a camera to view his surroundings, much like insects use their eyes. This makes the Smellicopter well suited for exploring interior or underground areas such as mines or pipes.

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