News and events - Tampere University of Technology

Smells help us navigate through public spaces

Never get lost in an office building or shopping centre again – soon you may be able to sniff your way to the right location. Researchers at Tampere University of Technology are developing an indoor navigation method based on the characteristic smells of places.

Have you ever wondered how salmon are able to find their natal river after spending years in the open ocean? How do homing pigeons find their way home over vast distances?

“Both species have their own sophisticated navigation system, and one of the components they are relying on is their sense of smell. Already in 1978, a team of scientists demonstrated that salmon are able to recognize the characteristic smell of their home river”, says Philipp Müller, postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University of Technology (TUT).

This got Müller and Professor Robert Piché thinking whether it would be possible to use smells to locate ourselves in public places, such as shopping centres or office buildings.

“This requires a careful measurement of the full spectrum of volatile substances that are characteristic of each location,” says Müller.

Müller uses an electronic nose, or eNose, which is a handheld device that sniffs the air and reports the results to the user. The idea is simple, and a similar scheme is already used in indoor localization and navigation systems that are based on, for example, WiFi signals or magnetic fields. The eNose sniffs the air in an unknown location and compares the results with other measurements from known locations to find a match.

“A room’s smell can be interpreted as a sort of fingerprint. All humans have a unique set of fingerprints. We wanted to see if this is also true for the smells of rooms. Our first tests were quite promising, but there are still some issues that need to be resolved.”

More accurate sense of smell than humans

Most of us recognize the typical smell of the office coffee room, the canteen or our gym. We can easily find our way around them without any technical gadgets. Navigating becomes more challenging in places where the characteristic smell is weaker or less original.

“The sensor in our eNose detects smells that are not perceptible to humans. The eNose was originally developed for detecting chemical warfare agents, which humans cannot smell at all. We thought that it might be possible to distinguish places based on their smell. In addition, we want to add smell information to digital maps, so that people can navigate in spaces that they haven't visited before.”

Will we soon be smelling our way to a new meeting room or that shop in the mall?

“There may one day be a smartphone app for that. In fact, sensors that could easily be integrated into small mobile devices are already on the market. Once they become available in mass-market products, we hope to be ready to use them to supplement existing localization and navigation systems to significantly improve their accuracy. But it’s early days yet, and there are still plenty of open questions that must be answered before we can reliably use ‘smell fingerprints’ for localization and navigation purposes,” says Philipp Müller.

Further information: Postdoctoral Researcher Philipp Müller, Faculty Engineering Sciences, TUT, philipp.muller@tut.fi

News submitted by: Sanna Kähkönen
News updated by: Anna Naukkarinen
Keywords: science and research