Artificial dog nose — the answer to airline security?


During a House Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Technology and innovation hearing last week, Homeland Security Undersecretary Brad Buswell and Dr. Penrose Albright, Principal Associate Director for Global Security at the Livermore National Laboratory, noted that full-blown studies to create what amounts to an artificial dog’s nose are funded and underway.

The dog’s nose is the Holy Grail for bomb detection.

The hearing subject was “Passenger Screening R&D: Responding to President Obama’s Call to Develop and Deploy the Next Generation of Screening Technologies.”

As the hearing questions focused on how to get the public to accept whole-body scanners and the ability of different technologies to detect explosives, the discussion eventually shifted to detecting bombs by deploying bomb-sniffing dogs. Both Rep. Garamendi (D-CA) and the Subcommittee Chairman David Wu (D-OR) brought up the possibility of utilizing dogs instead of focusing so much on new technology.

Those questions led to an extended discussion about dogs and their uncanny usefulness in detecting explosives. During the discussions Dr. Albright noted that extensive research has been done by the national labs. However, he cautioned that researchers have not be able to discern how dogs can identify explosives.

Though, this was the first time I had heard of studies attempting to unlock the secrets of how dogs smell, these studies have been being conducted for decades at our national labs and in private labs.

A canine’s nose functionality is still a mystery for sensory scientists. Dogs have been trained to sniff and search for bodies under rubble, explosives, drugs, banned foods and even the presence of cancer.

Despite a decade of tremendous experimentation in bomb detection because of airline security prompted by 9/11 and the search for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afganistan, there is still no man-made tool that can detect the traces of explosives like a canine’s sophisticated sniffing system.

“The dog’s nose is the gold standard for chemical trace detection,” explains Brent Craven, a researcher with the Gas Dynamics Lab and the Applied Research Lab at Penn State University. Craven and his team, which includes Drs. Gary Settles and Eric Paterson of the Mechanical Engineering Department, are using computer models to study the canine sense of smell to help develop ‘artificial sniffer’ technologies.

Experts at the Sensory Research Institute, Florida State University, have estimated that the dog’s sense of smell exceeds that of humans by a factor of at least 10,000 and possibly as much as 100,000.

Trained dogs are still the best bomb detectors even after all of our technological sophistication.

An article in the Boston Globe published in September 2009 noted:

… the quest for a manmade nose is proving difficult – harder than developing the technology that allows computers to pick up sound waves humans can’t hear, or the cameras that capture images our eyes can’t see.

“The chemical senses – the sense of smell and taste – are not as well understood currently as some of the other senses, like vision and audition.”

NASA has reportedly designed electronic high-tech sniffers to monitor the air during manned space flights. These efforts have been limited to certain chemicals in a highly controlled and contained environment. Getting something like that to work in an airport environment with competing smells and constantly changing quantities of potential explosives is at this point in time, impossible.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), home of the initial research that led to today’s Internet, has been working on what they call RealNose.

When it comes to identifying explosives, chemical weapons and other battlefield hazards, today’s mechanical sensors offer limited performance. By contrast, “the canine olfactory system is able to detect thousands of chemicals with high selectivity and specificity,” DARPA said.

Dogs are born with “olfactory receptors” that are far superior to any detection system man has so far produced.

DHS and TSA’s recent efforts at bomb detection have resulted in a much closer cooperation with the National Laboratories at Livermore, Ca., and Sandia and Los Alamos, N.M. In fact, a new undersecretary position has been created to coordinate these powerful research efforts in explosives recognition.

In the meantime, in a world of whole-body scanners, wands and x-rays, trained dogs are still a terrorist’s worst nightmare and an airline passenger’s best friend.

  • Karen C.

    What am I missing here — wouldn’t it be both cheaper and more effective to just stick with real dogs? Having a dog sniff my luggage, even though I am not carrying anything illegal, always makes me nervous. Surely, having a real dog around to sniff for explosives would prove much more of a deterrent to a potential terrorist than any technology that (1) costs us (the country and the taxpayers) a fortune and (2) terrorists seem to be able to outsmart.

  • Charlie Leocha

    Chairman Wu, made the same statement at the hearings. He did some top-of-the-head calculations and figured that dogs would be a bargain. Heck, he noted, “They are used to check cars coming into the Capitol grounds.”

  • laura townsend elion

    You guys hit it right on the ‘nose.’ – as I was reading, I was thinking, “is there a shortage of real dogs?” I like dogs at the airport – they deter the crap out of criminals through fear, and they provide, I don’t know, a friendly presence for those of us who aren’t criminals. My kids love them and if you ask, the handler often will take the dog ‘off the job’ using verbal commands and let the kids pet them.

    I can’t imagine the millions of dollars it would take to develop a fake ‘dog nose’ when we know so little about how they smell, and when we can use natural resources. Since it is possible to train some shelter dogs to be bomb detecting dogs, I’d more in favor of that.

  • Frank

    According to this article, the bomb sniffing dogs can only work for a 1/2 hour before they need a break. Training is crucial because some dogs fail the bomb sniffing tests as stated in the article.

  • Hapgood

    Dogs could be a more effective and cost-effective solution to airport security than anything the TSA currently has or wishes to inflict on us. But they’re just not sexy enough for a Homeland Security bureaucracy that craves high-tech, intrusive measures. The prospect of strip-searching all passengers sends a rush of blood to the naughty bits of any TSA official. A dog sniff just doesn’t do that.

    (And if there’s a shortage of dogs, it’s worth noting that a rat’s nose is even more sensitive than a dog’s. Rats are intelligent and easy to train, and even easier to manufacture in large quantities than dogs. Put them in enclosures visible to the public, and you’d probably have an even more intimidating deterrent than dogs.)

  • Charlie Leocha

    While we are at it, why don’t we look at wasps. In researching this story, I learned that they have been shown to be able to detectexplosives, are easily trainable and can be bred by the thousands.

    The point of this story, is not to begin using dogs for security, but to note the level of ongoing research into trying to create an artificial dog’s nose and understand their uncanny ability to sense these various things from explosives to cancer cells.

  • Karen C.

    Maybe the point of your story SHOULD be that they should use dogs or rats or wasps (not that I like the idea of wasps flying around me) for security as it might, in fact, be more effective in the long run. When do we say to the TSA or Homeland Security that enough is enough? A couple of menancing German Shepherd dogs sniffing around might deter even the most determined underwear (or any other version of attire) bomber. I guess it might be hard to for them admit that a dog might work better than all the technology in the world AND all of their intelligence gathering. I’d rather they spent that research money curing cancer or maybe doing something radical like getting all the different security agencies on the same page.

  • Chris Gray Faust

    The advantage that a manmade dog nose could have over a real dog in certain situations can’t be denied. As it is, the military often uses robotic sensors to go in and diffuse explosives (you can see this technology used in The Hurt Locker). Now imagine a terrorist sitution where you could send in a robot that has an explosive detection system as powerful as a dog. Much less risk to both dogs and people.

    It may never happen, though. I find it so interesting that despite years of research (apparently the govt. has been working on this for decades), they have yet to come up with anything that actually mimics a dog’s perception abilities. Hard to improve on Mother Nature!

  • Pingback: Can bomb-sniffing rats help TSA? Seriously()

  • Pingback: Can bomb-sniffing rats protect the flying public? - OC Watchdog : The Orange County Register()

  • Pingback: Sunday musings: Franklin’s America, artificial dog-nose research, dog B&Bs()