Tiny drone uses a live moth antenna to sniff out chemicals in the air

Augmenting drones so they could detect chemicals in the air, locating disaster survivors, explosives, gas leaks and other objects of interest has long been on the R&D agenda of mechanical engineers. One of the biggest hurdles, however, is that most human-made sensors are not sensitive or fast enough for such applications.

Enter the “Smellicopter”, a cybernetic device developed by engineers at the University of Washington, featuring a live antenna from a moth which enables the drone it’s mounted on to navigate towards different types of smells.

To replicate the incredible abilities of the common hawk moth, the engineers carefully removed the insect’s antenna — where most of the moth’s chemical sensors lie — and mounted it on board.

The team then passed a light current through it, enabling the platform to monitor the antenna’s general status, which changes when it is exposed to certain chemicals. The cells of the antenna then, excited by the particles wafting over them, create a fast, reliable, and accurate signal for those scents they are built to detect. After testing the technology, the team found that the moth-machine performed better than a traditional sensor of similar size and power.

While the machine was naturally drawn to floral scents in the lab tests, the scientists hope that the technology could also be adapted in the future to detect other chemicals, such as carbon dioxide or other noxious gases.

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