Prototype explosives-detection system utilizes live 'sniffer mice'
By Ben Coxworth
February 28, 2011
Mice ... they may nibble our food, poop in our cupboards, and make us go "eek," but they may also someday keep us from getting blown up. Before they can do that, however, Israeli tech company BioExplorers has to get its mouse-based explosives detection system out of the prototype stage and into production. If it ever does see the light of day, then people at airports, arenas, and other high terrorism-risk areas may routinely be getting a sniff-down by containers of live rodents.
Although mechanical explosives-sniffing systems do exist, dogs are still said to be more reliable. Most security checkpoints will only have a limited number of dogs available, however, and if the one dog giving a person or container the once-over is having an off day, then presumably something could be missed. Additionally, dogs' olfactory systems are much less sensitive than those of mice.
The BioExplorers system would consist of detection units that people would have to walk past. Each of those units would contain multiple cartridges of four to eight "hypersensitive bioSensors" – you know, mice. As people passed by, air would be circulated past them and into the cartridges. If the mice smelled explosives in that air, they would try to escape it by moving from the cartridge's main area and into an adjoining side chamber. Their presence in that chamber would automatically cause the system to alert users to the possible presence of explosives.
The system could also be used to inspect things like air cargo, with a vacuum hose drawing air from containers and into the cartridges.
Of course, not just any old mice would do. The system would use laboratory-bred animals, that would need to be trained. That said, the system would apparently be able to train them itself, and for any number of explosives, narcotics or other selected substances. The initial basic training would take about ten days, with the addition of new odors taking a few days each. Refreshment training courses might be necessary about once a month.
The mice would not be visible to passers-by, and would work in four-hour shifts. An automated system would look after their food, water and bedding changes. The "career" of each mouse would last about 18 months.
Although the BioExplorers system certainly appears to pose some logistical (and likely ethical) challenges, its creators maintain that it would be easy to use, inexpensive to maintain, and reliable. The prototype is said to be able to detect explosives within three to six seconds.
Via New Scientist