UXO, Bomb Mouse

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2011

I’ve double-checked the calendar, so I’m sure it’s not April yet, and New Scientist are a reliable publication… but even so, I can’t help but hoist an eyebrow over the idea of deploying bomb-sniffing mice in airports. Well, at least it’s safer than being X-rayed by the controversial nuddie-scanners, right?

Along one side of an archway, a detection unit contains three concealed cartridges, each of which houses eight mice. During their 4-hour shifts in the detector, the mice mill about in a common area in each cartridge as air is passed over people paused in the archway and through the cartridge. When the mice sniff traces of any of eight key explosives in the air, they are conditioned to avoid the scent and flee to a side chamber, triggering an alarm. To avoid false positives, more than one mouse must enter the room at the same time.

“It’s as if they’re smelling a cat and escaping,” Eran says. “We detect the escape.” Unlike dogs, which are often trained for explosives and drugs detection, mice don’t require constant interaction with their trainers or treats to keep them motivated. As a result, they can live in comfortable cages with unlimited access to food and water. Each mouse would work two 4-hour shifts a day, and would have a working life of 18 months.

Those are pretty decent working conditions by current standards – folks, if you can train me up to do the same work, I’ll take a ten year contract on the condition I can renegotiate a larger daily helping of mixed seeds at each feeding. And if you promise a few cigarette breaks per shift, I promise not to unionise…

[ Snark aside, we’ve mentioned bomb-sniffing rodents before… why exactly no one thought of using them for airport security before is unclear, but my money would be on “didn’t want to get laughed out of the briefing room”. Additional: “cartridges… housing mice” made me think instantly of a certain musical instrument. ]

Four-legged bomb detectors still top dog

Paul Raven @ 22-10-2010

After research and development to the tune of US$19bn, the Pentagon concludes that nothing detects bombs more effectively than a well-trained dog; Uxo would be proud.

Despite a slew of bomb-finding gagdets, the American military only locates about 50 percent of the improvised explosives planted in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that number jumps to 80 percent when U.S. and Afghan patrols take dogs along for a sniff-heavy walk.

Technology isn’t the answer to every problem… unless that problem is “how can we squander billions of dollars that could be better used in other ways”, I suppose.

BioBricked bacteria glow in the presence of landmines

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2009

landmine warning sign, CambodiaAn alarmingly large amount of the world’s surface is strewn with landmines left behind after conflicts of one sort or another, leaving the locals at risk of death and mutilation long after the dispute that caused them to be laid down has ended (or moved elsewhere).

Scouting for landmines is a risky job for humans (and, sadly, not everyone has a bomb dog like UXO)… but a student project at the University of Edinburgh may have found an easier and safer way of locating the mines so that they can be defused:

Bacteria which glow green in the presence of explosives could provide a cheap and safe way to find hidden landmines, Edinburgh scientists claim. The bugs can be mixed into a colourless solution, which forms green patches when sprayed onto ground where mines are buried. Edinburgh University said the microbes could be dropped by air onto danger areas. Within a few hours, they would indicate where the explosives can be found. The scientists produced the bacteria using a new technique called BioBricking, which manipulates packages of DNA.

Sounds like the perfect solution… although, as Inhabitat points out, we could do with being sure that the bacteria are thoroughly benign and unlikely to spread beyond the target area, lest we simply swap landmines for a form of unintended biological warfare. [via SlashDot; image by karl simourd]