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'Fart detector' wins Chinese Physics prize

Whoever smelled it used an algorithmic odour plume-tracing strategy

By Simon Sharwood, 11 Apr 2016

China has awarded a prestigious “Pineapple Prize” to a fart-detector.

The Pineapple Prizes are organised by Guokr.com, a Chinese popular science publication that named the award after the fruit which in China is said to be so ugly that only the brave and curious would explore its delicious interior. The prizes therefore look for discoveries that are both useful and amusing.

This year that approach saw Li Jigong of Tianjin University take out the Physics prize for a device Chinese state media says “not only solves the mystery of who farted, but provides a way to locate the source of any odor through the complex dynamics of air.”

A spot of research suggests there's actually some serious work behind this one, as Jigong is co-author of a paper titled Odor source localization using a mobile robot in outdoor airflow environments with a particle filter algorithm.

The paper “... discusses odor source localization (OSL) using a mobile robot in an outdoor time-variant airflow environment” using “A novel OSL algorithm based on particle filters”. The OSL looks for an “odor plume clue” and when one is found, “performs an exploratory behavior, such as a plume-tracing strategy, to collect more information about the previously unknown odor source.” This all happens in real time and is said to be rather better at figuring out who dealt it than Bayesian-inference-based OSL method.

Chinese state media is talking this up as a way to have industrial robots detect gas leaks. Guokr.com thinks sniffer-bots could be a fine way to sniff out illegal drugs.

This year's Pineapple Prizes also honoured a study into why flies and other insects appear to groom themselves – to remove dirt, in ways it's felt could keep solar panels clean – and work on maglev trains in an evacuated tube. The latter work suggested that trains could hit 3,000 km/h in partial vacuum. ®

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