Engineers at the University of Washington have developed a prototype of a tiny drone featuring a live moth antenna for detecting odors and following those odor plumes to their source.

Dubbed the Smellicopter, the autonomous drone features a live antenna from the Manduca sexta hawkmoth. The antenna reportedly behaves as it does on a live moth, detecting smells and their sources.

The antenna, which was removed from a live moth, stays biologically and chemically active for four hours following removal. It was adhered to the drone via tiny wires that connect to each end of the antenna and to an electrical circuit, which measures the signals emitted from each of the cells within the antenna in response to odors.

In addition to sensing odors, the drone relies on an onboard camera and not GPS to navigate its environment, enabling the drone to avoid obstacles encountered as it searches for the origin of a scent.

During testing of the antenna, the team determined that the so-called Smellicopter detected odors and their sources faster than sensors designed for the same purpose.

The team believes that the Smellicopter could be used to locate people trapped under rubble following a natural disaster based on the carbon dioxide exhaled from survivors; for mine and pipe exploration; and to detect gas leaks or explosives.

The research appears in the journal IOP Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

To see how the Smellicopter operates, watch the accompanying video that appears courtesy of the University of Washington.

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