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Friday, February 04, 2011

Israeli bomb-sniffing mice?

From New Scientist:
ONE day, there may be more than X-ray machines and full-body scanners awaiting you at the airport. Listen out for the snuffling of sniffer mice as you pass through security.

The critters will not be angling for a snack, though. They are part of a bomb-detecting unit created by Israeli start-up company BioExplorers, based in Herzeliya, which claims that trained mice can be better than full-body scanners and intrusive pat-downs at telling a bona fide passenger from a terrorist carrying explosives.

Eran Lumbroso conceived the mouse-based explosives detector while serving as a major in the Israeli navy. Along with his brother, Alon, he founded the company and built a device that looks much like an average airport metal detector or full-body scanner.

Along one side of an archway, a detection unit contains three concealed cartridges, each of which houses eight mice. During their 4-hour shifts in the detector, the mice mill about in a common area in each cartridge as air is passed over people paused in the archway and through the cartridge. When the mice sniff traces of any of eight key explosives in the air, they are conditioned to avoid the scent and flee to a side chamber, triggering an alarm. To avoid false positives, more than one mouse must enter the room at the same time.

"It's as if they're smelling a cat and escaping," Eran says. "We detect the escape." Unlike dogs, which are often trained for explosives and drugs detection, mice don't require constant interaction with their trainers or treats to keep them motivated. As a result, they can live in comfortable cages with unlimited access to food and water. Each mouse would work two 4-hour shifts a day, and would have a working life of 18 months.

What's more, mice beat dogs for olfactory talent, and by much more than a nose: dogs have 756 olfactory receptor genes, while mice have 1120, resulting in a more acute sense of smell.

The company ran its first field test in December last year at Azrieli Center, a large shopping mall in Tel Aviv. More than 1000 people passed through the detector, 22 of whom were asked to hide mock explosives in pockets or under shirts. All 22 packages were detected, the Lumbrosos claim, adding that the false-alarm rate was less than 0.1 per cent.
Their web page is here...and it is awful.

I don't know how scalable this solution is, but it is interesting.