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. ]


“Rodent” is definitely the fashionable robot body-form for 2009

Paul Raven @ 03-07-2009

… because here’s another one of ’em. SCRATCHbot is designed with a highly sensitive set of whiskers for feeling its way through rubble, perhaps to rescue people from collapsed buildings or natural disasters.

I reckon there’s probably some mileage in a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon called Robot Rescue Rodents. No sign of robot capybaras yet, though…


Psikharpax: the robot rat

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2009

Psikharpax the robot ratDespite some freaky-looking androids coming out of Japan, we have yet to develop robots that can reproduce complex autonomous human behaviours. Perhaps the problem is that we’re aiming too high?

That’s the theory held at the Paris-based Institute for Intelligent Systems and Robotics, at least, who’re looking to the rodent world for inspiration:

Rather than try to replicate human intelligence, in all its furious complexities and higher levels of language and reasoning, it would be better to start at the bottom and figure out simpler abilities that humans share with other animals, they say.

These include navigating, seeking food and avoiding dangers.

And, for this job, there can be no better inspiration than the rat, which has lived cheek-by-whisker with humans since Homo sapiens took his first steps.

The rat is the animal that scientists know best, and the structure of its brain is similar to that of humans,” says Steve Nguyen, a doctoral student at ISIR, who helped show off Psikharpax at a research and innovation fair in Paris last week.

The goal is to get Psikharpax to be able to “survive” in new environments. It would be able to spot and move around things in its way, detect when it is in danger from collision with a human in its vicinity and spot an opportunity for “feeding” — recharging its battery at power points placed around the lab.

“We want to make robots that are able to look after themselves and depend on humans as least as possible,” said Guillot.

Seems like a good idea… provided they don’t build in the natural rodent propensity for rapid reproduction. [via GlobalGuerillas; image borrowed from linked PhysOrg article]