Nevada scientists combining robotics and chemical sensor technology

Reported by: Ashley Cullins
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Updated: 3/11/2014 7:46 pm
RENO, Nev. (KRNV & -- Local scientists from the University of Nevada and NevadaNano are teaming up on a project for the Army that combines robotics and chemical sensor technology.

"The objective is to have this robot fly around and it can sense chemicals in the environment," said Kam K. Leang.

Leang teaches mechanical engineering at Nevada and is working with engineers from the university and Nevada Nanotech Systems.

NevadaNano President Ralph Whitten said combining robotics with chemical sensors improves safety and could save lives.

"Rather than being close to the situation, you can send a probe out and profile a half mile away or a mile away," Whitten said.

"If you're the Army or if you're a first responder, or if something is just tilted over spilling everywhere, you're just sending this drone out into that air saying go figure out what that is and where it is," said NevadaNano Principal Engineer Ben Rogers.

Rogers is also working on the project. He and Leang said both the partnership and the technologies are a perfect fit.

"It gives these robots the ability to sense the environment and to be more aware of what's around them," Leang said.

"It's like having a little lab on a bird," Rogers said.

Whitten said with their sensors the sky is the limit. 

"We just look for molecular properties, so we're not looking for specific chemicals," he said. "So our system is very flexible in the type of chemicals it can look for."

"[It can] sort of make a map of an area from a chemical standpoint," Rogers said.

They already have a prototype designed to show these technologies can work together, and the goal will be to shrink it down. 

"The sensors themselves are about the size of an ant's eyeball," Rogers said. "The electronics that go along with it are about the size of a deck of playing cards."

The project is in its first phase and will be up for an initial evaluation this summer, and the engineers are excited to be working on the technology here.

"The way Nevada is becoming a drone testing area and can be at the forefront of something is very exciting," Rogers said. "So it's cool to be part of that."

"It's really exciting for us to have this project here and it gives us the opportunity to become a leader in this field," Leang said.

While even hearing the word drone makes some people nervous, they say the good outweighs the bad.

"Just like with any technology it can be misused," Whitten said.

"A rope and a knife and the internet are all dangerous too if used by the wrong people or for the wrong reason, but I wouldn't want to get rid of ropes and knives and the internet," Rogers said.

Rogers is proud of the work they're doing.

"I think it's good to fight for the good guys," he said. "In mechanical engineering you can design lots of different things and some people have to design missiles and guns and things like that, but I think it's more fun to be on defense and to try and protect people."

The engineers said this technology could be used on the battlefield in defense of chemical warfare or right here at home before sending emergency responders in to potentially hazardous environments.
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