Do I smell a rat (er, mouse) in TSA’s future?

March 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm 7 comments

I hope so.

Israel21C recently reported on new technology that might someday replace invasive pat-downs and body scans TSA treats us to at the airport:

Israeli startup Bioexplorers has developed a new and unique way to sniff out terrorists – literally. After years of research, company CEO Eran Lumbroso tells ISRAEL21c, Bioexplorers has hit upon a foolproof, non-invasive and easy method to detect contraband in purses, luggage and even cargo – using mice.

Like dogs, mice have an excellent sense of smell and they’re relatively easy to train. As much as it pains to me admit it, mice offer some advantages. Their small size means they’re cheaper and easier to keep than dogs are, and because they don’t need human handlers, mice also won’t be sensitive to their prejudices.

The proposed system will combine low tech mice with high-tech training and screening equipment. The target to be screened will move through a passageway equipped with fans that extract the air surrounding the target and deliver it to chambers containing several mice. Each mouse is trained to respond to a single odor. When a mouse detects the target odor it moves into a second chamber and sets off an alarm.

Bioexplorers’ system is interesting because not only could it allow for less invasive screening than existing measures but, as an improvement over existing canine detection methods, it could also give screeners the ability to determine exactly which odorants have been detected.

Initial tests are promising.

[Bioexplorers] has conducted several tests at sites in Israel to ensure that the sensors work in real situations, including at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall. More than 1,000 people passed through a Bioexplorers sensor – some having been given “suspicious” objects and substances to hold – and the mice made the right call every time, says Lumbroso.

The company says they can train mice in just two weeks using a patented Skinnerian computer program. Mice will be expected to work four hour shifts with eight hour rest periods and each mouse’s career is anticipated to last about two years.

It’s an interesting idea and there may be additional uses for the tiny detectors. Bioexplorers’ representatives say they’re also working on systems designed for medical use.

They may be able to detect drugs and explosives at minute concentrations, but the mouse’s nose may be too refined for use in the wine industry. The io9 forums report that researchers at Japan’s Hiroshima University conducted an experiment in 2008 to see if they could teach mice to tell different kinds of wine apart. The experiment was successful so the group decided to take the idea a step further and see if they could teach mice to tell different brands of red wine apart.

The results were interesting.

Only two of the ten mice tested displayed the ability to consistently tell the red wines apart. Six others performed on a what appeared to be a purely random basis.

But the final pair of connoisseur mice could not be persuaded to respond the target wine. These mice were consistently drawn to a specific non-reward wine indicating that they preferred the smell of this wine to the food rewards offered by the alternate choice.

I’m not terribly surprised to hear that well-fed laboratory mice will sometimes prefer an alluring scent over certain food rewards. Smell plays a huge part in the social and intellectual life of a mouse. A good smell, or an interesting one, may provide the kind of intellectual stimulation that could be more lacking in a laboratory mouse’s life than food is.

And while mice may replace dogs in situations where a static location like an airport or freight terminal needs to be screened for a wide array of compounds, I suspect that dogs will continue to be the detector of choice in field situations for some time to come.

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Is there a gene for stupid? Robo-Scooper!

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rob McMillin  |  March 4, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Now, Janeen, you can’t say “mouse” without mention of Russell and Ronald Mael.

  • 2. H. Houlahan  |  March 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    The mice “move into a second chamber” when they detect the target odorant because they have had the shit shocked out of them when presented with that odorant in the past. They flee in terror.

    Interesting how they soft-pedal that detail.

  • 3. SmartDogs  |  March 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Oh! I should have guessed that if they just referred generically to “Skinnerian operant conditioning” that they were referring to the kind of nasty crap that gives negative reinforcement such a bad name.

    No click for the Israelis.

  • 4. H. Houlahan  |  March 4, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I posted a link to a longer article about this company a couple of weeks ago — it had more detail.

    Every time someone starts going on about detector hyenas or wallabies or whatever, and how they have better noses than dogs, I bang my head on the wall because they are missing the point.

    We don’t employ dogs because they have the best noses. We employ them because they want to do it.

    This creates issues when training and fielding are bad and handlers are cueing false alerts, but this is not an insoluble problem.

  • 5. SmartDogs  |  March 5, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    But – can dogs be trained to cost-effectively screen passengers and cargo for several different individual odors?

    It seems to me that if you’re screening a stationary location like an airport or freight terminal for a constant stream of cargo and you want to screen each person or piece individually for drugs, explosives and other kinds of contraband these mice are a better idea than dogs.

  • 6. Ed  |  March 6, 2011 at 11:38 am

    What I never understand when there is talk of using mice or wasps or naked mole rats for this is, how do you get the mice or wasps or naked mole rates to the vast piles of luggage or boxes on the truck or piles of crates in the containers?

    I have never seen a discussion of this that explains away my image of a person holding a container of mice or wasps or naked mole rotes and carefully going through the line of people or truckload of cargo or whateveryou. A dog an use its own legs.

  • 7. annette Lowe  |  March 22, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Re: And while mice may replace dogs in situations where a static location like an airport or freight terminal needs to be screened for a wide array of compounds, I suspect that dogs will continue to be the detector of choice in field situations for some time to come.

    Oh, I can see it now…
    Officer: Sir, do we have your permission to search your trunk?
    Driver: Sure.
    The officer pulls a half dozen mice out of his shirt pockets, each trained to detect a different drug, and turns them loose in the trunk.
    What fun!

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