Brian's Blogs

The smell of technology

We’re all familiar with the concept of industrial robots gliding around assembly lines helping to build cars. Less well-known are the inexpensive, domestic versions that can automatically vacuum your house, water your garden, or entertain your child. Robots are no longer confined to manufacturing processes – they have become consumer products in their own right.

The science of robotics also extends to the military domain. Banks of systems will replace every major combat area in the battlefield with distributed robots - in the air and on the ground. Products  from the defence and aerospace company BAE Systems will include autonomous vehicles capable of operating for extended periods without supervision. Groups of land, sea, air and underwater robotic platforms will co-operate, on their own initiative, to perform complex missions that currently require significant human intervention. This promises unprecedented capability for armed forces, allowing them to automate activities that are currently expensive, dangerous or simply mundane.

Scientists and engineers at BAE Systems are addressing the challenges by developing key technologies, which include recent advances in robotics.

The science of robotics is closely aligned to the field of Artificial Intelligence which has sought to build intelligent machines since the 1950s.

For instance, NASA is developing an electronic nose sensor that can detect concentrations of ammonia as low as 1 part per million. The International Space Station is based on a complex network of cooling pipes carrying poisonous ammonia throughout the station and NASA’s ‘eNose’ sensor will probably become part of a complete atmospere safety system aboard the ISS.

In the UK, the University of Warwick has been actively involved in the research and development of electronic noses for the past 20 years.  An electronic nose can be regarded as a modular system which detects the odour, transducing the chemical quantity into electrical signals, followed by appropriate signal conditioning and processing.

There are various applications in which an electronic nose may be used. For example, to monitor the characteristic odour generated by a manufactured product (e.g. drink, food, tobacco, soaps) , in the analysis of coffee odours (e.g. roasting level and bean type), as well as analysing tobaccos, drinks,  transformer oils, plastics and drinking water. More recent work has been undertaken on the use of e-noses for medical diagnostics and biotechnology.

Researchers at the same university have created an electronic tongue that works by rattling and observing the acoustic response of fluids. It appears that different tasting fluids respond to the rattling in specific ways, allowing for detection of the four basic tastes: sour, salty, bitter and sweet.

The device is unique among experimental electrical tongues because it uses physical, rather than electrical or chemical, features of substances to detect taste. The big advantage this offers is that the new tongue doesn't need special coatings for specific tastes, as do other electronic tongues.

It’s not difficult to envisage miniature electronic tongues someday being put to use almost everywhere — at dairies, in beverage and pharmaceutical industries, to monitor water quality, and in biomedical labs.

Imagine, for instance, a spoon that tells you the sauce needs more salt, or your cup of tea has no sugar in it.

Being able to create specific smells has also been achievable for some time now. An American company called DigiScents has created a machine that plugs right into your personal computer and wafts virtual odours at you!

Want to buy coffee on line? Click onto their web site and get a whiff of it first. You could also sample the scent of a cologne, get that new-car smell when checking out new models on-screen, and instead of just looking over a restaurant's menu—sniff out each entree!

The method of creating target aromas is similar to inkjet printing. Inside is a tray of 128 scent materials, called a scent palate, that can produce thousands of smells on command. Instead of ink, the component scents are released into a mixing chamber, where a fan then sends the mixed fragrances into the room.

You can embed a digital smell file into Web content or e-mail, just as you can a sound file. A user requests or triggers the file by clicking a mouse or opening an e-mail and a small amount of the aroma is emitted by the device in the direct vicinity of the user. The scent cartridge, like a printer's toner cartridge, will have to be replaced periodically to maintain the scent accuracy.

Humans can distinguish more than 10,000 different smells which are detected by specialised olfactory receptor neurons lining the nose.... It is thought that there are hundreds of different olfactory receptors, each encoded by a different gene and each recognising different odorants.

When you smell many fruits or flowers, what you are smelling is esters - organic molecules - evaporating from the fruit or flower. For example, the ester that gives a banana its smell is called isoamyl acetate, and the formula for it is CH3COOC5H11. The primary smell of an orange comes from octyl acetate, or CH3COOC8H17. Esters can now be made artificially, and that is where artificial flavours come from.

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