This cyborg drone uses moth antennae to identify chemicals

This cyborg drone uses a moth antenna to identify target chemicals.
Image: Mark Stone | University of Washington

The concept of a cyborg resides mainly in the realm of science fiction. However, researchers from the University of Washington are bringing it a little closer to reality. They recently designed a tiny drone that uses antennae from a real moth to navigate in the direction of target chemicals.

Although it sounds absurd, repurposing the moth’s biology was more efficient than engineering a man-made chemical sensor. The drone automatically navigates towards target chemicals and has applications across a variety of industries.


Ask anyone in the field of technology and they’ll tell you that it is difficult to beat Mother Nature. The systems found in nature are typically far more sophisticated than anything humans can make. In some cases, replicating those systems with hardware is good enough—even if they don’t perform with maximum efficiency.

However, the University of Washington team decided that it would be better to work with nature—literally.

Melanie Anderson, the lead author of a paper detailing the moth-drone hybrid, says, “Nature really blows our human-made odor sensors out of the water.”

She adds, “By using an actual moth antenna with Smellicopter, we’re able to get the best of both worlds: the sensitivity of a biological organism on a robotic platform where we can control its motion.”

That is certainly true. The team’s “Smellicopter” is a tiny drone that features collision avoidance technology and other forms of logic. However, the highlight is an antenna removed from a common hawk moth that’s mounted on the front of the board.

The drone passes a light current through the antenna, allowing it to sense changes. When the antenna is exposed to chemicals in the air, its cells are excited. This creates a fast electrical signal that the drone’s hardware can detect.

Researchers can program the Smellicopter by exposing it to a certain chemical. The electrical signal that is produced is designated by a characteristic electrical spike. From there, the team is able to program the drone to seek out that electrical signal by “smelling” with the antenna.

The drone’s navigation features are also smart. It has a pair of fins that automatically turn it upwind while it is following a scent. The Smellicopter’s rotors then propel it in that direction. Should the drone lose track of a scent, it starts moving side-to-side until it identifies it again.

Smelling Out Trouble

Although the Smellicopter is still a prototype, it isn’t hard to envision the applications it may have. A tiny drone that can identify target chemical odors could be used in sectors like heavy industry and the military.

Anderson notes that it could sniff out gas leaks in a building, all while navigating through tight spaces. Meanwhile, the drone could be used to identify unexploded IEDs in a military setting. Using drones to find these explosive devices would keep humans out of harm’s way.

It will be interesting to see what the limitations of the drone are. For instance, could it be scaled up to work with a larger drone that needs to cover more space?

One downside of using a biologic antenna is that it doesn’t stay viable forever. The researchers note that it remains active for up to four hours after it is removed from the moth. That could limit the Smellicopter’s usefulness in some applications.

However, the drone is certainly a breakthrough in the field of robotics and, yes, cyborgs.


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