Could scent-tracking sniffer dogs be out of a job? Well, perhaps eventually. Scientists from Japan's Kyushu University have developed a prototype robot that can detect and follow odors left on the ground, such as those deposited in footprints.

While we have seen scent-tracking robots before, most of them have been designed to detect airborne odors, plus they often take a long time to do so. By contrast, the tread-equipped Kyushu robot picks up smells from the ground, and it can travel at a speed of 10 cm (3.9 inches) per second while doing so.

Developed by a team led by Zhongyuan Yang, Fumihiro Sassa and Kenshi Haysashi, the robot uses a bottom-mounted tube to suck odor molecules from the ground and into its localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) sensor. That sensor measures changes in light absorption by a film of gold nanoparticles, upon exposure to a target gas. Currently, the sensor is calibrated to detect ethanol.

In lab tests, the robot was able to successfully detect and follow a series of ethanol deposits left at various locations along the ground – it was even able to read the word "ODOR" written on the ground as a binary barcode, using multiple ethanol deposits.

It is hoped that once developed further, the technology could have applications in fields such as security, or that it could even be used to allow multiple robots to communicate with one another via scent markings.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal ACS Sensors.

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