This tiny drone makes use of an actual moth antenna to trace down goal chemical compounds


Sometimes it's just not worth it to surpass Mother Nature. This appears to have been the judgment of the engineers at the University of Washington. Those who regretted the lack of chemical sensors as good as a moth's antennae chose to reuse moth biology rather than inventing new human technologies. See the "smellicopter".

Mounted on a tiny drone platform with collision avoidance and other built-in logic, the device is a prototype of a promising amalgamation of artificial and natural ingenuity.

"Nature really blows our man-made odor sensors out of the water," admits UW student Melanie Anderson, lead author of the paper describing the smellicopter, in a university press release. In many industrial applications, sensitivity is of paramount importance.

For example, if you had a sensor that could detect toxic particles at a fraction of the concentration of another sensor, it would be a breeze to use the more sensitive of the two.

On the flip side, moths are no stranger to flying at clouds of poisonous gas and reporting their results. So the team (carefully) removed the antenna of an ordinary hawk moth and mounted it on board. By passing a stream of light through it, the platform can monitor the general status of the antenna, which changes when exposed to certain chemicals – such as those a moth wants to follow, perhaps the scent of a flower.

See it in action below:

In tests, the cybernetic moth machine construct performed better than a conventional sensor of comparable size and performance. The cells of the antenna, stimulated by the particles blowing over them, generated a fast, reliable, and accurate signal for the chemicals they were supposed to detect. The "reprogramming" of these sensitivities would not be trivial, but anything but impossible.

The small drone itself has clever technology to point the antenna against the wind. While pressure sensors and gyros may have made sure the vehicle was pointing in the right direction, the team used the simple approach of a pair of large, lightweight fins on the back that automatically turn the drone against the wind, like a weather vane. When something smells that good, let's go.

It's a prototype, but that kind of simplicity and sensitivity is undoubtedly attractive enough to potential customers such as heavy industry and the military that the team will have deals on soon. You can read the article about the design of the smellicopter in IOP Bioinspiration & Biomimetics magazine.


Melinda Martin