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Dogs are the best bomb detector – for now
In the security industry, the main weapon against smuggling bombs or drugs is a dog. There are other instruments out there that vowed to do better, but despite years of effort into research, dogs are still the favourite tools. According to a source from the French Ministry of Transport, electronic detectors which have performed well in a controlled environment, failed with many false positives in a crowded environment. To date, sniffers dogs are still the best detector out there but they come with a high price tag. In the US alone there are around 600 federal government owned canine teams in operation and each would cost $110k in the first year and thereafter around $80k per year in running cost. That is $66million for the first year and $48million every subsequent year – a frightening sum. So comes the question, can we provide an alternative to sniffer dogs, something more powerful yet cost effective? We believe yes , the sniffer bees can!
Bees are very different to dogs
Honeybees are different from other animals in the sense that it cannot be tamed. However, it turns out that it can be an advantage. Where dogs need to be taken care of by the handlers, honeybees can be fed with sugar water and be left to its duties. Where dogs need to be encouraged with a reward from the handler, honeybees do not need such pampering.
Every technology has its own strengths and weaknesses. I still believe that even when we have finally succeeded in introducing sniffer bees into the real world, sniffer dogs will still play a major role. Sniffer bees are excellent at mechanical, repetitive and long working day detection whereas sniffer dogs are brilliant at searching, hunting and deterring the terrorists. I therefore think it is a complementary solution.
Research into honeybees (Apis melifera) started in the 1960’s. The researchers were interested mainly in understanding the foraging behaviour of honeybees. These tiny creatures were shown to learn almost any odours and have subsequently inspired numerous researchers to explore the practical application of Sniffer Bees. In early 2004, DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) funded a project to use the honeybees for explosives detection. They discovered that honeybees can detect TNT at parts-per-trillion (ppt) level. That is as sensitive as or better than dogs. It was encouraging but not enough to persuade the military to adopt them in a battlefield. The main concern is the logistics and practicality of using bees in the field.
Sniffer bees stay in a box we named as bee holders
Our Sniffer bees are restraint in a uniquely designed bee holders. Each holder contains electronics to monitor the PER response. It also contains a small heater to keep them warm during the cold days. The sniffer bees stay in there comfortably for the duration of their ‘part-time job’. They are released after the have finished their job. I expect most people would imagine sniffer bees roaming around ports to look for the terrorist and if they do, they will create more chaos and damage than the bombs. So, no they don’t.
How do the bees indicate their response?
One good thing about sniffer bees is that the response is an automatic reflex. A honeybee sticks out its Proboscis (or less scientifically, its tongue) willingly/unwillingly with a touch of sugar water on its antenna. At that point, if it were exposed to the smell of explosives, it will associate explosives to sugar water and thereafter sticking its tongue out on the exposure to TNT. The entire process takes only 6 seconds. Some bees learn faster than the others so the process is repeated 5 times. Occasionally, some bees just refuse to learn so they are not recruited into our sniffer bees team. In essence, we can train a single bee in 5 minutes, whereas in sharp contrast, a dog will take 6 months. Our automatic training unit can deliver 500 trained sniffer bees in just 5 hours.
Through working with the UK Homeoffice in 2008, Inscentinel has developed the Vasor136 detector that can house 36 sniffer bees to detect 6 different chemicals. In the test against an IMS technology, bees responded to TNT and Semtex whereas IMS did not. This is an expected outcome as we knew through the study of the sensitivity of honeybees. The evidence is concrete, honeybees can detect down to at least 78ppt of 2, 4-DNT. This is far more sensitive than electronic detectors and even better than dogs. At the time of testing, the IMS machine could only detect parts per billion and therefore honeybees are 1000 times more sensitive. Why do we choose DNT? Simply because DNT is the signature chemical of TNT explosives that dogs pick up on and TNT explosives cover almost 80% of all the landmines ever used.
The Vasor136 was a good proof-of-principle prototype that demonstrated how we can use honeybees in a practical environment. The detector essentially looks like an electronic detector and no one would suspect there were 36 sniffer bees hiding in there to sniff out terrorists. But that is not enough, how would one produce their many number of bees to use in airport? It is through these questions that we eventually came to develop this bee sensor system that aims to cover the entire process of capturing honeybees, loading into equipment, training to substances and use them in detection all automatically. To use sniffer bees in real life, we want to make the end users life as painless as possible to adopt it and we believe we have achieved that.
What is coming next?
The central principle of the bee sensor system is to combine technology with animals. This allows us to harness the best of both worlds. Animals are ultra-sensitive and highly accurate, on the other hand technology provides the ease of operation. Right now, Inscentinel is at the stage of attracting investors to raise finance to complete the prototyping and looking for security companies to run this technology in a field test. Given the superior quality of other animals, I have no doubt that the bees will perform brilliantly – after all, sniffer bees were not developed only in the last decade, but over millennium to achieve their level of sensitivity.