“Insect Nose”: The robot uses grasshopper antennae to smell

Insects have distinctive olfactory organs that can be tapped to identify different smells together with an AI.

The biosensor is placed on a robot vehicle. (Image: Tel Aviv University (Screenshot)

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a biological sensor based on desert locust antennae, giving a robot a sense of smell. Artificial intelligence (AI) interprets the electrical signals from the antennas so that they can be assigned specific smells. The system is said to be around 10,000 times more sensitive than conventional odor sensors.

The olfactory organs of animals and insects are clearly superior to electronic olfactory sensors. Electronic odor detectors “still can’t keep up with millions of years of evolution,” explains Dr. Ben Maoz of the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the Sagol School of Neuroscience. That’s why people use dogs, for example when tracking down drugs at airports, whose sense of smell is more developed and, together with special training of the dog, achieves a high and reliable detection performance.

The sensory organs of humans and animals use receptors that can recognize and distinguish different signals. These are converted into electrical signals and decoded in the brain. According to the scientists, insects are particularly good at receiving and processing sensory signals, the research team writes in their study “The Locust antenna as an odor discriminator”, which is published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics. For example, a mosquito can detect a difference in the carbon dioxide content in the air of 0.01 percent. “Today we are a long way from developing sensors that can match the capabilities of insects,” the scientists state.

The biological olfactory sensor they developed is based on the antennae of a desert locust, the insect’s primary olfactory organ. The research team managed to read the electrical signals that occurred in response to different smells. With the help of machine learning, they created an odor library. The system was then able to determine exactly when a certain odor occurred. Initially, this was limited to eight scents, including geranium, lemon, and marzipan. In another experiment, the scientists expanded the library to include other, rather unusual smells. For example, they were able to identify different types of Scotch whiskey.

“A comparison with standard measuring devices showed that the sensitivity of the insect nose in our system is about 10,000 times higher than that of the devices in use today,” summarizes Professor Yossi Yovel, who led the project together with Professor Aimir Ayali, both scientists at the School of Zoology and of the Sagol School of Neuroscience.

For demonstration purposes, the scientists strapped the odor sensor to a four-wheeled cart. The research team sees sniffing out explosives and drugs, for example, as a practical application. Furthermore, diseases could be identified. According to Maoz, the principle of the “insect nose” can also be applied to other senses, such as sight and touch.

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