Israeli company BioExplorers are hoping to revolutionize the way in which explosives, narcotics and even money are detected at airports, border crossings, docks and other public places by using specially trained sniffer mice!
The BioExplorers system works by having the person stand inside a small booth. The person is then hit by a gentle blast of air that is sucked into a small chamber where a group of 8 trained mice are contained.
The mice need just a few seconds to determine whether the person they have just smelt is carrying anything suspicious. If nothing of note is detected by the mice, the green light goes on and the booth barrier opens allowing the person to go about their business.
If the air smells of the substance the mice have been trained to pick up, they gather in the ‘reporting compartment’ which raises an alarm.
BioExplorers founder Eran Lumbroso displayed his mice sniffer system for the first time at Israel Homeland Security Exhibition in Tel Aviv – where he is also the chief technology officer.
He said that the idea first came about in 2000 when there were a lot of suicide bombings taking place on public transport in Israel. Lumbroso said; “I was in the army at the time, and the idea emerged to use small animals instead of dogs in detecting suicide bombers.”
After leaving the army in 2004, Lumbroso, who is a biologist, continued working on this project and ran numerous different tests with various types of animals, training methods and tactics.
He chose to focus his attention on mice because of their minute size and their brilliant sense of smell. He said; “They can be trained to sniff out drugs, money, even remainders of pesticides on agricultural produce.”
Lumbroso points out that mice have a keener sense of smell than dogs and that often the canine sniffer can be found to be intrusive or intimidating by some subjects.
Each mouse takes 2 months to train and can work for a period of 18-months, they work 4 hour shifts after which they remain in the chambers and the air gets diverted to the next group of mice that will start work.
The mice are well fed and watered and their living quarters kept clean and serviced regularly.
A BioExplorers sniffer mice booth was tested at a Tel Aviv shopping center in December of 2010. More than a thousand people passed through the detectors among which 20 were found to be carrying ‘suspect material’. Lumbroso said; “Over 1,200 people passed through. There was one false alarm, and all of the initiated targets were detected.”
The mice would not be effective for detecting metals (guns and other weapons) because metal does not have a strong enough odor – but they can be trained to pick up pretty much everything else, even money!
BioExplorers say that their prototype system is more effective than taking body swabs from travelers and better than the full body scanners that are installed in most airports. It will be piloted next year.
Lumbroso believes that trained sniffer mice could also help in the medical profession, claiming that they could be taught to detect the early signs of cancer. He said; “People in the early stages of breast and lung cancer exhale certain particles…The mice could be trained to sniff them out.”
Though BioExplorers system is unique, it is not the first time that small rodents have been used to sniff out explosives; Belgian NGO Apopo uses the so-called HeroRats to detect landmines in regions formerly ravaged by war and a team of researchers at Hunter College, New York, led by Charlotte D’Hulst have been working on mice called ‘Mousensors’ that have been genetically modified to further enhance their keen sense of smell.