Using sniffer bees for bulk screening of cargo



Ivan Hoo, chief executive officer, Inscentinel, Harpenden, UK


REST technology with dogs

In the UK, freight forward companies screen 100 percent of all of their parcels. The first line of screening relies on X-rays followed by REST dogs for special items which cannot be screened. REST, stands for Remote Explosives Scent Tracing. This works by sampling the air from the cargo through a specially designed filter. This filter, which can trap explosives molecules, is then presented to the most accurate explosives detector ever – dogs. This method has proven very effective to exploit the accuracy of dogs while maximizing the throughput volume of screening, which a free-running dog cannot otherwise do. According to the information found on the website of Diagnose, a subsidiary of ICTS:

‘The technique has screened over 100,000 trucks and pallets and over 1.5 million metric tons of air cargo since live operations began in the UK and France. The RASCargO™ technique was specially developed to serve the mass screening cargo market that requires a solution for screening high volumes of dense cargo, with actually, no cargo size limitation, a solution that combines high detection rate with cost effectiveness.’

This method is, of course, not limited only to explosives but many other kinds of applications. The prevention of smuggling contraband, drugs and food quality control can all potentially utilize this technology. However, maintenance of dogs is high and would require a logistic setup beyond the reach of many smallerscale operations. In addition, REST dogs have to be specially trained; it is said that it is tougher to train a REST dog than a search dog.

If we want to promote the use of REST, an alternative to dogs needs to be found. The potential sensor would need to answer the following points:

  • As accurate and sensitive as dogs
  • Easier to use and to maintain than dogs
  • Cheaper than dogs

Replacing the dog: here comes the sniffer bee

Accuracy and sensitivity

Research into honeybees (Apis melifera) started in the 1960s. The researchers were interested mainly in understanding the foraging behaviour of honeybees. These tiny creatures were shown to learn almost any odour and have subsequently inspired numerous researchers to explore the practical application of sniffer bees. In early 2004, Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded a project to use the honeybees for explosives detection. They discovered that honeybees can detect TNT at a parts-per-trillion (ppt) level. Our in-house research shows that the sniffer bees can detect down to at least 78ppt of 2,4–DNT. That is as sensitive as or better than dogs.

Operational easiness

The bee sensor system was developed with the help of the Homeoffice (UK) in 2008. It begins with the capturing of honeybees, automatically loading them into bee holders, training them with explosives’ scents and finally using them in a handheld detector, the Vasor136. This automation means that no special trainer or handler is required and anyone with minimal training can operate the entire system.

It is quite remarkable to know that our single automatic training unit can produce 500 trained sniffer bees in just five hours; training a single sniffer dog takes up to six months. On the detection side, there is no longer a requirement of a specialist handler or police officer at the front line. The sniffer bees inside the Vasor136 are monitored electronically through an infrared sensor. The information is displayed in easy to read: ‘YES/NO’ coloured squares on an LCD screen.

The advantage of a technology assisted solution is obvious in this instance.


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