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This New Robot Can Smell

A technological biological breakthrough has allowed s robot to smell using a biological sensor. The recorded sensitivity by the biological sensor is 10,000 times higher than that of existing electronic devices. Future work is focused on giving the robot navigation ability to not only find the odor source, but also identify it.

In a scientific first, a robot at Tel Aviv University has inherited another one of the five human senses—smell. The robot can smell through a biological sensor. The sensor sends electrical signals as a response to the presence of a nearby odor, which the robot can detect and interpret.

In the study, researchers successfully connected the biological sensor to an electronic system. Using a machine learning algorithm, the robot was able to identify odors with a level of sensitivity 10,000 times higher than that of a commonly used electronic device.

“The system allowed us to detect each odor 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,” said study author Yossi Yovel. “We were able to characterize eight odors, such as geranium, lemon and marzipan, in a way that allowed us to know when the smell of lemon or marzipan was presented. In fact, after the experiment was over, we continued to identify additional different and unusual smells, such as various types of Scotch whiskey.”

The team says the device can detect each odor at the level of an insect’s primary sensory organ—which is exactly what the researchers were aiming for.

“Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should use it,” said researcher Ben Maoz. “The principle we have demonstrated can be used and applied to other senses, such as sight and touch. 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. Some animals know how to detect diseases. Others can sense earthquakes. The sky is the limit.”

The researchers say in light of the success of their research, this technology may also be used in the future to identify explosives, drugs, diseases, and more. In future work, the researchers plan to give the robot a navigation ability to allow it to localize the odor source and later, its identity.


  • Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
  • Yossi Yovel - Tel Aviv University