Monday, December 11, 2006

Latest buzz on explosives detection

Did you know that honeybees can be trained to detect explosives? Neither did I, but apparently it can be done.

According to an Associated Press article on the Airport Business website, researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory say that bees can be trained to detect even tiny amounts of explosives.
In thousands of trials conducted over the past 18 months at the nuclear weapons lab, bees stuck out their tongues when they smelled explosives. The bees even underwent field trials, successfully sniffing out explosives in a simulated roadside bomb, in a vehicle, and on a person rigged like a suicide bomber.

The insects have a phenomenal sense of smell, rivaling that of dogs, [researcher Thomas] Haarmann said.

"The beauty of the bee is that when it has a sugar water reward, it sticks out its proboscis," the scientist said. "It's not a little tiny tongue. It's bigger than the antennae."
Military officials have decided that the bees are "not reliable enough for military tactical use at this point." However, the folks at Los Alamos say it's too early to rule out the possibility of "another federal agency, or a private company, refining the technology and developing other uses for bomb-sniffing bees - at airports, for example, or at the nation's borders."
The researchers found that ordinary honeybees can readily be trained by being exposed to the odor of an explosive, then given sugar water as a reward. After a few times, the bee, anticipating the sugar water, will stick out its tongue at the smell of the explosive.

The Los Alamos study was designed to test technology pioneered by a small British biotechnology company, Inscentinel. The company has developed a small portable sensing unit - a box, basically - into which three strapped-down bees are placed. The bees' so-called proboscis extension reflexes are automatically detected by a camera and associated software, with the results available on a laptop computer.

Haarmann said the study showed that trained bees can detect explosives in a parts-per-trillion concentration, even when masked by other odors.

While that is similar to what dogs can do, Haarmann said, there are situations in which using bees might be preferable. The bee box, he suggested, could be held by a robotic device right next to a suspected bomb while the operator watched the laptop from a safe distance.
I want to know who's in charge of strapping those bees into that box. Do you think they use a five-point harness?

Source: Study Says Bees Can Find Explosives - Airport Business

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