Robotic AI biohybrid smell sensor is 10,000x more sensitive

Robotic AI biohybrid smell sensor is 10,000x more sensitive

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

Researchers in Israel have developed a biohybrid sensor for smells that is 10,000 times more sensitive than today’s sensors that can be attached to a robot.

The sensor developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University uses the antenna of a locust and sends electrical signals as a response to the presence of a nearby odour, allowing a robot to detect and interpret smells via machine learning. This could be used to identify explosives, drugs, diseases, and more

The researchers successfully connected the biological sensor to an electronic system and using a machine learning algorithm, were able to identify volatile compounds with a sensitivity of 1ng, 10,000 times higher than gas chromatography–mass spectrometry.

The sensor is able to differentiate between at least eight pure odours and two mixtures of different odorants, independently of odorant concentration.

“Man-made technologies still can’t compete with millions of years of evolution. One area in which we particularly lag behind the animal world is that of smell perception,” said Dr. Ben Maoz of the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the Sagol School of Neuroscience who worked on the project.

“An example of this can be found at the airport where we go through a magnetometer that costs millions of dollars and can detect if we are carrying any metal devices. But when they want to check if a passenger is smuggling drugs, they bring in a dog to sniff him. In the animal world, insects excel at receiving and processing sensory signals,” he said.

“A mosquito, for example, can detect a 0.01 percent difference in the level of carbon dioxide in the air. Today, we are far from producing sensors whose capabilities come close to those of insects.”

“We connected the biological sensor and let it smell different odours while we measured the electrical activity that each odour induced,” said Prof. Yossi Yovel of the School of Zoology and the Sagol School of Neuroscience. “The system allowed us to detect each odour at the level of the insect’s primary sensory organ.”

“Then, in the second step, we used machine learning to create a ‘library’ of smells. In the study, we were able to characterize eight odours, such as geranium, lemon and marzipan, in a way that allowed us to know when the smell of lemon or marzipan was presented,” he said.

“After the experiment was over, we continued to identify additional different and unusual smells, such as various types of Scotch whiskey. A comparison with standard measuring devices showed that the sensitivity of the insect’s nose in our system is about 10,000 times higher than the devices that are in use today.”

“The principle we have demonstrated can be used and applied to other senses, such as sight and touch,” said Maoz. “For example, some animals have amazing abilities to detect explosives or drugs; the creation of a robot with a biological nose could help us preserve human life and identify criminals in a way that is not possible today.”

In future work, the researchers plan to give the robot a navigation ability to allow it to localize the odour source and later, its identity.


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