A ground-breaking technological development from a UK-based company could change the future of security at ports. In a move that brings together nature and technology, bulk cargo screening could soon be carried out by an unlikely source - sniffer bees.
Scientists at Inscentinel, commonly known as the sniffer bee company, have devised an ingenious way of harnessing the insect's powerful sense of smell to detect explosive material and drugs hidden in cargo.
The process begins with the capturing of honey bees, which are then trained to associate drugs and explosives with sugar water. The training of the bees is a relatively simple process: a honeybee sticks out its Proboscis (or less scientifically, its tongue) and gets a touch of sugar water on its antenna. At that point, if it were exposed to the smell of explosives, it will associate explosives with sugar water and thereafter stick its tongue out on the exposure to TNT, for example.
Once fully trained the bees can be used in a handheld sensor, the Vasor136, where the entire process last just six seconds. The sniffer bees inside the Vasor136 are monitored electronically through an infrared sensor. The information is displayed in easy to read: ‘Yes/No’ colored squares on an LCD screen.
Inscentinel claim that its automatic training unit can produce 500 trained sniffer bees in just five hours - all the more remarkable when you consider that it can take up to six months to train a single sniffer dog.
The automation on the Vasor136 also means that anyone with minimal training can operate the system, meaning, unlike in the case of sniffer dogs, no special trainer or handler is required.
The costs involved with the training of honey bees are minimal when you consider that it costs $118,000 for a one dog handler team in the first year and $80,000 for the subsequent year. The US federal government, for example, owns 600 sniffer dogs; that is $48 million in annual expenditure.
The bee sensor system is a machine and, once developed into a product, the cost is low. The training of bees requires only sugar water (no more expensive than dog food), while the cost of a honeybee itself is relatively cheap. A bee hive can contain up to 60,000 bees and a local beekeeper can manage 20 hives single handedly.
However, perhaps the most significant advantage over the use of canines is the ability to account for the activities 24/7, as once housed in the bee holder they are monitored continuously by the electronics.
Right now, Inscentinel is at the stage of attracting investors to raise finance to complete the prototyping and looking for security companies to run this technology in a field test.
“I have no doubt that the bees will perform brilliantly,” says chief executive of
Inscentinel, Ivan Hoo. “After all, sniffer bees were not developed only in the last decade but over millennium to achieve their level of sensitivity.”