According to scientists, robots equipped with advanced olfactory sensors can accurately detect a wide range of odors, even when they are too faint for the human nose to detect.
Genki Yoshikawa, a researcher at the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), has developed a new olfactory sensor measuring 1 millimetre by 1 mm.
A membrane made of polymer that covers the sensor changes its shape when molecules responsible for certain odors are absorbed. The sensor can identify the absorbed molecules by analysing the degree of deformation based on changes in electrical resistance.
By replacing the material for the membrane, more than several hundred kinds of olfactory sensors can be created, Yoshikawa said.
Using this technology, Yoshikawa has succeeded in telling the difference not only between significantly different smells, such as water and vinegar, but between chicken, beef and pork.
Electronics giant Kyocera Corp. is looking to market a device equipped with the new sensor next year, according to Yoshikawa.
The development of olfactory sensors advanced in the 1980s using semiconductors and other substances. Those sensors have since been used for food quality control. Cleaning companies also use this technology to check cleanliness.
But conventional sensors can only scent out specific smells or the strength of odors.
“It not only can distinguish various smells, but it is also small and highly sensitive,” said Yoshikawa, referring to his latest olfactory sensor. “There are no other devices that achieve these three conditions simultaneously.”
Yoshikawa said the technology can be used to develop equipment that assesses people’s health based on their breath, and determine the freshness of foods.
Meanwhile, surveillance camera maker Earth Eyes in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward is involved in the development of a security robot that uses olfactory sensor technology.
“If someone acting suspiciously has gasoline or other specific substances, the robot would be able to determine that the person is likely dangerous,” said Saburo Yamauchi, Earth Eyes president.
Yamauchi referred to a June 2015 incident in which a man used a combustible agent to commit suicide on a train running on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line.
“(The incident) might have been prevented if the train had been equipped with an olfactory sensor,” he said.
To expand the development and use of olfactory sensors, NIMS established the MSS Alliance jointly with other makers in September to define industry standards to be introduced for olfactory sensor systems.
“We plan to develop a sensor that can be used for smartphones and other devices,” said Akira Yaegashi, an official of MSS Alliance.
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