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Tech by VICE

Robots Can Smell Now

The "e-nose" can recognize alcohol, blood, urine, and sweat.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 24 2014, 9:00am
Image: Shutterstock

Robots have acquired a wide variety of anthropomorphic hobbies recently, from caring for the elderly, to sexting, to being the absolute cutest little darlings ever. But one of the most useful skills our artificial friends have added to their wheelhouse is a keen sense of smell.

Take, for example, the “electronic nose” developed by Blanca Lorena Villarreal at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey. Like many robotic advances, Villarreal’s olfactory system was inspired by biological processes, and it even has its own artificial septum that separates two simulated “nostril” sensors.

The e-nose can be programmed to recognize several chemical signatures, like alcohol, blood, urine, and sweat. Once it has collected data about a certain smell, the nose radios it to a computer that runs algorithms on the information, and calculates where it is coming from and how to get there.

Villarreal with the smelling robot. Image: Villarreal/investigación y Desarrollo.

"Unlike other olfactory systems, this has the feature that in each cycle of ventilation the air chamber empties, making sensors ready for a new measurement," said Villarreal in a statement released today. The last step was to mount the nose on a robotic platform, in this case a rover-like device funded by CONACYT (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología).

Keen smellers like Villareal’s e-nose could be integrated into a number of different robotic devices, but the immediate application she sees for it is search-and-rescue.

Considering that a drone saved a man’s life recently, it’s not at all far-fetched to imagine a roving e-nose searching through precarious terrain, following bodily scents to recover casualties. And while Villareal’s robot has nothing on a rescue dog’s sense of smell, it could be used in situations where an animal’s life might be at risk, or perhaps in areas that are constricted or volatile in the wake of a natural disaster.

Indeed, Villareal’s mobile device is only the latest of several robots developed to use "noses" to save lives. For example, Örebro University has deployed its “Gasbot” mobile robot into several landfills to search for methane leaks.

Gasbot has a particularly awesome method for hunting down these fissures. The robot shoots laser beams several meters ahead of itself, scouting for the gas’s precise wavelength. When the beam bounces back, Gasbot can tell if how much of it was absorbed by nearby plumes of methane, to an accuracy of 5 parts per million. It’s not “smell” in the familiar biological sense, but it clearly demonstrates that robots can root out dangerous leaks far more efficiently and safely than humans.

There’s also work being done all the way on the other end of the robo-biological spectrum. Instead of imitating animal senses like Villarreal, researchers at the University of Tokyo straight-up co-opted the silkworm moth’s odor-tracking skills. They placed male moths into a small mobile robot and teased them with the scent of female moths. The males went nuts, and began chasing the pheromones on the robot’s tracking ball, thus propelling the device towards the scent.

This robot runs on moths. Credit: YouTube.

Sure, it’s good to know that the development of a robotic sense of smell will help with search-and-rescue, gas detection, and maybe cleaning our stinky apartments. But it’s great to know that if we need exosuits for horny moths, that’s covered too.

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