An Israeli company is aiming to revolutionize the way explosives, narcotics and even money are detected at airports, docks and border crossings, not with the help of expensive machinery or advanced software, but with the help of mice, which are being used as sniffer animals for the first time
The system, developed by the Herzliya-based BioExplorers, is simple: A traveller stands inside a small booth and is hit by a gentle blast of air that is then sucked into a small opaque chamber, where a group of eight mice are on duty.
After eight seconds, assuming the subject is all clear, a green light appears and the barrier opens.
But if the air smells of a suspicious material the mice have been trained to detect, they gather in the so-called reporting compartment, which raises an alarm.
"The idea began in 2000-2001, when there were many suicide bombings on (Israeli) buses," said BioExplorers founder and chief technology officer Eran Lumbroso at the Israel Homeland Security exhibition in Tel Aviv, where he displayed his mechanism for the first time.
"I was in the army at the time, and the idea emerged to use small animals instead of dogs in detecting suicide bombers."
After leaving the army in 2004, Lumbroso continued work on the project, running tests with different types of animals, portals and training methods.
Mice were eventually chosen because of their keen noses and diminutive size.
"They can be trained to sniff out drugs, money, even remainders of pesticides on agricultural produce," explains Lumbroso, who is a biologist.
"They have a very developed sense of smell, more than that of dogs," he said, pointing out that sniffer dogs can also be intrusive and sometimes intimidating to their subjects.
"The mice can also be easily trained, and thanks to their small size, you can use a small group of them and have multiple sensors," says Lumbroso.
The booths contain three sections, or cartridges, roughly the size of a small microwave oven, stacked one on top of the other, which are each home to eight mice.
Each group of rodents works a four-hour shift, before the flow of air is automatically diverted to the next cartridge in line. They are trained over two months, with each mouse able to work for an 18-month period.
In December 2010, a BioExplorers booth was placed at the entrance to a Tel Aviv shopping mall and more than a thousand people passed through it, among them 20 test subjects carrying suspect material.
"Over 1,200 people passed through. There was one false alarm, and all of the initiated targets were detected," Lumbroso said.
While mice would not be efficient in detecting metals, which do not have a powerful odor, they can be trained to react to different kinds of narcotics, and dozens of kinds of explosives emanating from roughly 15 different "families" of materials, said Lumbroso.
They can even detect the particular smell of money.
Full body scanners now being used in many international airports only alert examiners to suspicious shapes, while the mice efficiently zero in on suspicious odors they have been trained to identify, Lumbroso said.
The mice also outdo the trace detection machines which, analyze swabs wiped over people's hands and clothes, said Lumbroso.
The company says it has a prototype of the system available which will be piloted next year.