A group of researchers will start development next month of a rescue robot that can detect human scents at disaster sites where people may be trapped under debris or earth and sand.
The researchers will draw on mosquitoes' ability to distinguish the faintest smell of animal or human perspiration to create a small sensor that can be attached to an unmanned drone or other device.
They aim to put these robots to practical use by 2020.
The group will consist of researchers from the University of Tokyo, major chemical company Sumitomo Chemical Co. and the Kanagawa Academy of Science and Technology.
Mosquitoes have many odorant-binding proteins in their antennae. When they are searching for prey, these proteins respond with high sensitivity to the odour of human sweat in the air.
The researchers plan to use mosquito genes to artificially synthesize such proteins and embed them in an electronic device. The small sensor will be adjusted to respond if there is at least one part per million (0.0001 per cent) of sweat odorant in the air.
The sensors will be used to develop robots that can provide support for search and rescue operations.
Disaster relief dogs are often employed to find missing persons. However, they can only work for so long and because they need instructions from their human counterparts, operations can be difficult in high-risk situations.
"The mechanism the insects have to distinguish smells is far simpler than that of mammals, and therefore easier to handle. It would be appropriate for a small-sized sensor," said University of Tokyo Prof. Shoji Takeuchi, an expert on mechanical engineering and leader of the research group.