Robots that Smell

Robots that Smell

Over the last several years, we’ve seen robots evolve considerably, developing a wide range of anthropomorphic qualities, most recently illustrated by stories of Jibo, the recently developed home robot by MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, which has received venture-backed funding and over $1 million in crowd funding for commercial development and production. Recently, our artificial friends have also added the sense of smell to their lexicon of human-like qualities.

1406151743568302Case in point is the the “electronic nose”, or “e-nose” for short, developed by Bianca Lorena Villarreal at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey. Like many other robotic developments, this artificial olfactory system was inspired by biological processes, to the point where the device even has its own artificial septum that separates the two simulated “nostril” sensors. The e-nose can be programmed to recognize and pinpoint characteristics of many chemical signatures.  

“Unlike other olfactory systems, this has the feature that in each cycle of ventilation the air chamber empties, making sensors ready for a new measurement,” said Villarreal in a statement released yesterday. The last step was to mount the nose on a robotic platform, in this case a rover-like device funded by CONACYT (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología). Once the sensors have collected data about a certain smell, the nose signals a computer which collects the information and runs it through assorted algorithms to pinpoint exactly where the smell is coming from and how to get there.

The most immediate use Villarreal sees for the keen smelling robot is search-and-rescue, roving through precarious terrain, following bodily scents to detect and recover casualties. While this device has nothing on a dog’s sense of smell, it can still be used in a scenario where an animal’s life is at risk, or if the environment in which it’s searching is too dangerous for an animal to venture. Recently, a drone saved a man’s life for the first time in the US, after he had been missing for three days. If additional robotic techiniques for preserving human life can be developed I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.