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Robot, do you smell it?

For the first time in the world of science, a robot was able to "smell" using a biological sensor

A robot with a sense of smell. Illustration: depositphotos.com
A robot with a sense of smell. Illustration: depositphotos.com

After developing the The first robot that hears with a biological ear, the researchers of Tel Aviv University gave the robot another sense: the sense of smell. The scientific breakthrough allows the robot to smell using a biological sensor, to detect whether there is a smell in its environment and in response to send electrical signals that it knows how to read. The researchers successfully connected a biological sensor to an electronic system and with its help, while incorporating a machine learning algorithm, they were able to separate odors with a sensitivity 10,000 times higher than existing electronic devices. The hope is that in the future a robot equipped with these senses will be able to protect human life and identify many dangers, starting with explosives and drugs, through detecting diseases and ending with natural disasters. "The sky is the limit," say the researchers.

The first robot with a biological nose. Only at Tel Aviv University.

"We go through a magnetometer that costs millions of dollars and can tell if we are carrying metals. But when you want to check if a passenger is smuggling drugs - you bring a dog to sniff him out"

Send technology to learn from evolution

The biological and technological breakthrough was made under the leadership of doctoral student Neta Shil from the Segol School of Neuroscience, Dr. Ben Maoz From the Ivy and Alder Fleishman Faculty of Engineering and the Segol School of Neuroscience, Prof. Yossi Yuval and Prof. Amir Ili from the School of Zoology and the Sagol School of Neuroscience. The results of the research were published in the prestigious journal Biosensor and Bioelectronics.

Dr. Maoz and Prof. Ily explain: "There are technologies that cannot compete with millions of years of evolution. One area where we are particularly lagging behind the animal world is the area of ​​smell perception. An example of this can be found in the airports. When we fly abroad, we go through a magnetometer that costs millions of dollars and can tell if we are carrying metals. But when you want to check if a passenger is smuggling drugs - you bring a dog to sniff him out. In the animal world, insects excel at receiving and processing sensory signals. A mosquito, for example, knows how to detect a difference of 0.01% in the level of carbon dioxide in the air. Today we are far from producing sensors that will come close in their capabilities to the senses of insects."

The researchers point out that, in general, our sensory organs and those of all other animals, such as the eye, ear and nose, use receptors that identify and separate different signals. In the second stage, the sensory organ translates the findings into electrical signals that the brain decodes as information. The challenge in biosensors is connecting a sensing organ like the nose to an electronic system that will know how to decode the electrical signals received from the receptors.

10,000 times more sensitive to smell

"We connected the biological sensor and allowed it to smell different odors while we measured the electrical activity that each and every odor evokes," explains Prof. Yuval. "The system allowed us to get an identification of every smell already at the level of the insect's primary sensory organ. In the second step we used machine learning to create a 'library' of smells. In the study we were able to characterize 8 smells, such as geranium, lemon and marzipan, in such a way that we could tell when the smell of lemon and when marzipan was presented. In fact, after the experiment was over, we continued and identified additional, different and strange smells, such as different types of Scotch whiskey. A comparison with standard measuring devices showed that the sensitivity of the biological sensor in our system is about 10,000 times higher than devices that are in use today."

"Nature is much more advanced than us, so you should use it. The principle we presented can be used and applied to other senses such as smell, sight and touch. For example, some animals have amazing abilities to identify explosives and drugs, and the production of a robot with a biological sensor could help us save human lives and identify criminals in a way that is not possible today. There are animals that know how to detect diseases and others that know how to feel earthquakes. The sky is the limit", concludes Dr. Maoz.

In the future, the researchers plan to integrate the robot with navigation capabilities that will allow it to locate the source of the smell and then also its type.