Smellicopter Drone Uses Live Moth Antenna to Track Scents

Robots are no match for the sensors insect are born with, but that doesn’t matter if we can just steal them

6 min read
Smellicopter drone with moth's antenna
That fuzzy little loop is a moth's antenna.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Research into robotic sensing has, understandably I guess, been very human-centric. Most of us navigate and experience the world visually and in 3D, so robots tend to get covered with things like cameras and lidar. Touch is important to us, as is sound, so robots are getting pretty good with understanding tactile and auditory information, too. Smell, though? In most cases, smell doesn’t convey nearly as much information for us, so while it hasn’t exactly been ignored in robotics, it certainly isn’t the sensing modality of choice in most cases.

Part of the problem with smell sensing is that we just don’t have a good way of doing it, from a technical perspective. This has been a challenge for a long time, and it’s why we either bribe or trick animals like dogs, rats, vultures, and other animals to be our sensing systems for airborne chemicals. If only they’d do exactly what we wanted them to do all the time, this would be fine, but they don’t, so it’s not. 

Until we get better at making chemical sensors, leveraging biology is the best we can do, and what would be ideal would be some sort of robot-animal hybrid cyborg thing. We’ve seen some attempts at remote controlled insects, but as it turns out, you can simplify things if you don’t use the entire insect, but instead just find a way to use its sensing system. Enter the Smellicopter.

There’s honestly not too much to say about the drone itself. It’s an open-source drone project called Crazyflie 2.0, with some additional off the shelf sensors for obstacle avoidance and stabilization. The interesting bits are a couple of passive fins that keep the drone pointed into the wind, and then the sensor, called an electroantennogram.

Smellicopter drone The drone’s sensor, called an electroantennogram, consists of a 'single excised antenna' from a Manduca sexta hawkmoth and a custom signal processing circuit. Image: UW

To make one of these sensors, you just, uh, “harvest” an antenna from a live hawkmoth. Obligingly, the moth antenna is hollow, meaning that you can stick electrodes up it. Whenever the olfactory neurons in the antenna (which is still technically alive even though it’s not attached to the moth anymore) encounter an odor that they’re looking for, they produce an electrical signal that the electrodes pick up. Plug the other ends of the electrodes into a voltage amplifier and filter, run it through an analog to digital converter, and you’ve got a chemical sensor that weighs just 1.5 gram and consumes only 2.7 mW of power. It’s significantly more sensitive than a conventional metal-oxide odor sensor, in a much smaller and more efficient form factor, making it ideal for drones. 

To localize an odor, the Smellicopter uses a simple bioinspired approach called crosswind casting, which involves moving laterally left and right and then forward when an odor is detected. Here’s how it works:

The vehicle takes off to a height of 40 cm and then hovers for ten seconds to allow it time to orient upwind. The smellicopter starts casting left and right crosswind. When a volatile chemical is detected, the smellicopter will surge 25 cm upwind, and then resume casting. As long as the wind direction is fairly consistent, this strategy will bring the insect or robot increasingly closer to a singular source with each surge.

Since odors are airborne, they need a bit of a breeze to spread very far, and the Smellicopter won’t be able to detect them unless it’s downwind of the source. But, that’s just how odors work— even if you’re right next to the source, if the wind is blowing from you towards the source rather than the other way around, you might not catch a whiff of it.

Whenever the olfactory neurons in the antenna encounter an odor that they’re looking for, they produce an electrical signal that the electrodes pick up

There are a few other constraints to keep in mind with this sensor as well. First, rather than detecting something useful (like explosives), it’s going to detect the smells of pretty flowers, because moths like pretty flowers. Second, the antenna will literally go dead on you within a couple hours, since it only functions while its tissues are alive and metaphorically kicking. Interestingly, it may be possible to use CRISPR-based genetic modification to breed moths with antennae that do respond to useful smells, which would be a neat trick, and we asked the researchers—Melanie Anderson, a doctoral student of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle; Thomas Daniel, a UW professor of biology; and Sawyer Fuller, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering—about this, along with some other burning questions, via email. 

IEEE Spectrum, asking the important questions first: So who came up with "Smellicopter"?

Melanie Anderson: Tom Daniel coined the term "Smellicopter". Another runner up was "OdorRotor"! 

In general, how much better are moths at odor localization than robots?  

Melanie Anderson: Moths are excellent at odor detection and odor localization and need to be in order to find mates and food. Their antennae are much more sensitive and specialized than any portable man-made odor sensor. We can't ask the moths how exactly they search for odors so well, but being able to have the odor sensitivity of a moth on a flying platform is a big step in that direction.

Tom Daniel: Our best estimate is that they outperform robotic sensing by at least three orders of magnitude.

How does the localization behavior of the Smellicopter compare to that of a real moth? 

Anderson: The cast-and-surge odor search strategy is a simplified version of what we believe the moth (and many other odor searching animals) are doing. It is a reactive strategy that relies on the knowledge that if you detect odor, you can assume that the source is somewhere up-wind of you. When you detect odor, you simply move upwind, and when you lose the odor signal you cast in a cross-wind direction until you regain the signal. 

Can you elaborate on the potential for CRISPR to be able to engineer moths for the detection of specific chemicals?  

Anderson: CRISPR is already currently being used to modify the odor detection pathways in moth species. It is one of our future efforts to specifically use this to make the antennae sensitive to other chemicals of interest, such as the chemical scent of explosives. 

Sawyer Fuller: We think that one of the strengths of using a moth's antenna, in addition to its speed, is that it may provide a path to both high chemical specificity as well as high sensitivity. By expressing a preponderance of only one or a few chemosensors, we are anticipating that a moth antenna will give a strong response only to that chemical. There are several efforts underway in other research groups to make such specific, sensitive chemical detectors. Chemical sensing is an area where biology exceeds man-made systems in terms of efficiency, small size, and sensitivity. So that's why we think that the approach of trying to leverage biological machinery that already exists has some merit.

You mention that the antennae lifespan can be extended for a few days with ice- how feasible do you think this technology is outside of a research context?

Anderson: The antennae can be stored in tiny vials in a standard refrigerator or just with an ice pack to extend their life to about a week. Additionally, the process for attaching the antenna to the electrical circuit is a teachable skill. It is definitely feasible outside of a research context.

Considering the trajectory that sensor development is on, how long do you think that this biological sensor system will outperform conventional alternatives?  

Anderson:  It's hard to speak toward what will happen in the future, but currently, the moth antenna still stands out among any commercially-available portable sensors.

There have been some experiments with cybernetic insects; what are the advantages and disadvantages of your approach, as opposed to (say) putting some sort of tracking system on a live moth?

Daniel: I was part of a cyber insect team a number of years ago.  The challenge of such research is that the animal has natural reactions to attempts to steer or control it.  

Anderson: While moths are better at odor tracking than robots currently, the advantage of the drone platform is that we have control over it. We can tell it to constrain the search to a certain area, and return after it finishes searching. 

What can you tell us about the health, happiness, and overall wellfare of the moths in your experiments?

Anderson: The moths are cold anesthetized before the antennae are removed. They are then frozen so that they can be used for teaching purposes or in other research efforts. 

What are you working on next?

Daniel: The four big efforts are (1) CRISPR modification, (2) experiments aimed at improving the longevity of the antennal preparation, (3) improved measurements of antennal electrical responses to odors combined with machine learning to see if we can classify different odors, and (4) flight in outdoor environments.

Fuller: The moth's antenna sensor gives us a new ability to sense with a much shorter latency than was previously possible with similarly-sized sensors (e.g. semiconductor sensors). What exactly a robot agent should do to best take advantage of this is an open question. In particular, I think the speed may help it to zero in on plume sources in complex environments much more quickly. Think of places like indoor settings with flow down hallways that splits out at doorways, and in industrial settings festooned with pipes and equipment. We know that it is possible to search out and find odors in such scenarios, as anybody who has had to contend with an outbreak of fruit flies can attest. It is also known that these animals respond very quickly to sudden changes in odor that is present in such turbulent, patchy plumes. Since it is hard to reduce such plumes to a simple model, we think that machine learning may provide insights into how to best take advantage of the improved temporal plume information we now have available.

Tom Daniel also points out that the relative simplicity of this project (now that the UW researchers have it all figured out, that is) means that even high school students could potentially get involved in it, even if it’s on a ground robot rather than a drone. All the details are in the paper that was just published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

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This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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