Robots that smell using lasers and… moths?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

smelling robot
The Gasbot is ready for action.

Our noses can smell danger, but what about those times we’re a bit too stuffy to pick up on our surroundings? That’s where machines can help. If something is burning or there’s a gas leak in a building, usually a trusty detector will sound the alarm. To take it one step further, though, several universities have been hard at work on developing sniffing robots!

Take the Gasbot for example. The folks at Örebro University have designed this little guy to “smell” gas in landfills using two lasers. The first laser can tell what chemicals are in an odor and identify them immediately. The second beam of light helps make a picture of where the invisible gas is hovering. Some gases, like hydrogen sulfide, can be harmful if humans breath it in, so it’s definitely a relief that Gasbot’s on the job! If only we could shoot laser beams from our nose…

Alright, so Gasbot sounds pretty cool, but what if I told you there’s something even wackier than a laser-nosed robot? Well, it just so happens there is, because our next guest is a robot from the University of Tokyo that’s driven by a moth! See, a male moth can track down a female moth based on the trail of chemicals she releases in flight. The Tokyo researchers attached the moth to a little ball that steers the robot. When tiny fans blow female moth chemicals in the direction of  of the male moth, he quickly steers the robot towards the scent! The researchers hope this study one day leads to insect-free robots that can track down environmental leaks.

The air is a great way to track smell, because chemicals can linger for a long time. Kanna Rajan, a man who helped develop the Mars Rover, says the harder challenge comes from smelling underwater! Still, Rajan is working on a robot that can make their own decisions to hunt down oil leaks, track underwater explosions, or even find a certain type of fish. Designing an underwater robot hasn’t been easy, though, because dIfferent currents, sea creatures, and ships can interrupt the robot’s mission.

As advanced as these robots are becoming, Jelle Atema from Boston University says that they still have a long way to go as far as being animal-like in their scents. “When it comes to… exposure in the natural environment and still being able to perform the task,” Atema said, “animals have it all over human engineering.”

Featured image courtesy of MIT. Gasbot image courtesy of Örebro University.