May 6, 2022 - Technology

Smelling technology could detect problems in self-driving taxis

Illustration of a poop emoji air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

An AI-powered nose could help robotaxi operators sniff out problematic odors — like the lingering scent of a passenger's tuna sandwich — and reroute the vehicle to a maintenance hub for cleaning before its next ride.

Why it matters: With driverless taxis, there's no one onboard to keep passengers from smoking or leaving behind offensive odors, from food to vomit. But new digital olfaction technology could be able to help.

What's happening: Aryballe, a Grenoble, France-based startup, uses biochemical sensors, optics and machine learning to detect odor and turn it into data that can be stored in a smell library, journalist Martin Kahl writes for Ground Truth, a blog about autonomous vehicles.

  • Aryballe's patented technology, which mimics the human sense of smell, could help patients who have lost their sense of smell, for example, or be used to identify new smells.
  • Food and consumer products companies can use it to enhance and differentiate their products or for quality control.

Automakers are interested in digital olfaction to monitor and detect nuisances, such as cigarette smoke or a fuel leak.

How it works: Humans sense when an object emits odor molecules that are carried through the air into our noses, activating receptors made of millions of olfactory nerve cells.

  • Those neurons identify smells, triggering memories and evoking emotions.
  • Aryballe uses organic chemistry to mimic the nose, CEO Sam Guilaumé told Kahl.
  • Smell molecules bind with volatile olfactive compounds on digital sensors, and they create a kind of smell image, which is then identified using AI and machine learning.
  • The process takes 10 to 20 seconds, which is about as long as it takes humans to react to most smells, Guilaumé said.

"Our digital nose uses similar receptors to those in your nose. Whatever your nose smells, our sensor can smell."

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