This Drone Sniffs Out Odors With a Real Moth Antenna

And, boy, does it work well: The researchers have found that the Smellicopter gets to the source of an odor 100 percent of the time. That’s due in large part to the extreme sensitivity of a moth’s antenna, which can detect minute odors not on the scale of parts per million, or billion, but trillion. A moth further increases its efficiency with physics: As it flaps its wings, it circulates air over its antennae, helping to sample more of an odor. Here, too, the researchers took inspiration from nature, using the quadrotor’s spinning blades to move more air over their borrowed antenna.

Courtesy of University of Washington

Sure, at the moment humanity may not have much use for a moth drone that sniffs out flowers, so the researchers are now exploring ways to use gene editing to create moths with antennae that sense odors like those associated with bombs. But could these Frankenmoths possibly be as sensitive to the scents of human-made materials as regular moths are to the pheromones of potential mates and the smell of flowers? That is, can the researchers retune a sense of smell that evolution has perfected for the moth over hundreds of millions of years of evolution?

“Theoretically, you could get more sensitivity,” says Anderson, “because the moth antenna can sense a variety of different chemicals, a lot like how we can smell a variety of different things.” Her lab’s idea would be to genetically engineer a moth antenna to be chock-full of the particular protein that’s involved with sensing a desired chemical. That would focus the antenna’s powers on one odor, not many.

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One of the current limitations of the Smellicopter, though, is that while they max out at four hours of use, the disembodied moth antennae live on for only two hours, on average. The drones last for even less time—at most 10 minutes on a charge—so battery life is actually more of an issue. In terms of storage, the researchers are finding that the antennae last a week, if not longer, when refrigerated. That’s not a lot of time, but “it’s easier to disseminate and transport than coronavirus vaccines,” says University of Washington biologist and neuroscientist Thomas Daniel, coauthor on the new paper.

Perhaps the machines of the future, then, will utilize the best of both human engineering and evolutionary engineering; after all, we humans haven’t invented an odor sensor anywhere close to the sensitivity of the moth’s. (Although researchers have tried to make a robot that can smell as well as a dog to detect cancer.) “I think it is a powerful concept,” says University of Zurich roboticist Antonio Loquercio, who researches drone navigation but wasn’t involved in this new work. “Nature provides us plenty of examples of living organisms whose life depends on this capacity. This could have as well a strong impact on autonomous machines—not only drones—that could use odors to find, for example, survivors in the aftermath of an earthquake or could identify gas leaks in a man-made environment.”

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