Every year the Chinese science publication Guoker hosts the Pineapple awards. This ceremony doesn’t celebrate anything tropical, but instead awards scientific and technological breakthroughs that resemble the fruit — discoveries both bizarre and charming. Prizes are given across ten fields including psychology, biology, and physics.
This weekend the Pineapple prize for physics was awarded to what Chinese media is describing as “a device to trace the source of a fart.” It was awarded to Li Jigong of Tianjin University, who presented a device that can be fitted to a robot. But while Jigong’s creation may be able to determine whether whoever smelt it, had in fact dealt it, it’s existence means much for society at large.
Being able to properly accuse farters is great, but the capability to locate toxic gas leaks is better.
In his most recent paper, published in a 2015 edition of Austrian Contributions to Veterinary Epidemiology, Jigong writes that since the 1990s, people have been trying to create machines capable of recreating the smelling capabilities of animals. And much like rats that have been trained to sniff out land mines, smelling machines could help keep people from harm.
“It is expected that mobile robots developed with such olfaction capability will play more and more roles in such areas as judging toxic or harmful gas leakage location, checking for contraband, searching for survivors in collapsed buildings, humanitarian de-mining, and anti-terrorists attacks.”
While other robots have been designed to trace scent through means like wind field physics models or remote gas source localization, Jigong’s device works off grid maps. The device laden robot issues successive measurements through a gas sensor and an anemometer, which is used for measuring wind speed. It is programmed to survey a given area through an algorithm based off the Dempster-Shafer theory, the idea that a conclusion to an unknown should be determined from hard evidence from multiple sources. At each step the robot collects the odor concentration, airflow speed, and the direction from where the odor is coming from.
Because the robot is searching for multiple odor sources, it moves along a path resembling a rectangular wave, searching for the stank. As it explores, the robot updates a grid map so it can specifically pin-point where the scent is coming from. Jigong’s invention works much better inside a contained area — meaning that when robots are inevitably sent onto subways as part of some inspection protocol, you may want to do your best not to pass gas.
Potential embarrassment of the future: Being arrested for issuing hazardous gas when really all you did was let go of an bean bomb.