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.