A prototype explosives detector I designed and built for Inscentinel was featured in an article by Richard Savill on page 3 of the Daily Telegraph—the full text follows:
Bees, latest weapon in the war on terrorism
Honeybees trained to sniff out explosives could soon be used at airports in the fight against terrorism.
Researchers have trained bees to extend their proboscis when smelling a particular explosive and have also developed a “sniffer box” to indicate when the bees show signs of detecting explosives. A spokesman for Inscentinel, of Harpenden, Herts, said teams of sniffer bees could one day be part of the screening process at airports and other venues, including museums and major sporting events.
The bees are know to use their sense of smell in the wild when they are gathering nectar to make honey and extending their tongue or proboscis indicates that they have found their target. Inscentinel thought this trait could be harnessed to help the fight against terrorism. Before being placed inside the detector, the bees are conditioned by giving them a reward of sugared water when exposed to the smell of explosives.
The prototype “sniffer box” model holds 36 bees in small containers. Air is sucked by a fan into the box through plastic tubes and passes over the bees. If explosives are in the air, each trained bee will stick out its proboscis. An optical system is embedded inside the container so that whenever the bee extends its tongue it breaks a beam of light, which then triggers a signal through the computer.
Unlike sniffer dogs which require months of training, it takes only a few hours to train the bees. “The advantage of bees over other animals is that they are really sensitive, cheap and are everywhere in the world”, said Mathilde Briens, the head of research and development at Inscentinel. “The training all revolves around response and reward, a classical Pavlovian conditioning of the honeybees. We expose the bees to the odour, say the smell of TNT explosive, for a few seconds and simultaneously give the bees a reward of sugar syrup.”
It is not just explosives the insects can sniff out. In many cases they can out-detect even the most sophisticated of electronic sensors, picking up tiny concentrations of substances from drugs to food products, and even dry rot.
The machine is not yet commercially available, but has been partially funded by the Home Office OSCT (Office for Security and Counter Terrorism). The company said it had carried out successful tests with the Government. Inscentinel, a small company of three staff and two directors, said the bees could be trained to sniff out anything from home-made fertiliser bombs, to demolition dynamite and C-4 plastic explosives. The company said the device could also be used for medical research, detecting chemicals in a patient’s breath, urine or blood.
The story in pictures can be found here.