Israeli startup Bioexplorers has developed a new and unique way to sniff out terrorists – literally. After years of research, company CEO Eran Lumbroso tells ISRAEL21c, Bioexplorers has hit upon a foolproof, non-invasive and easy method to detect contraband in purses, luggage and even cargo – using mice.
It’s no joke. “Mice have an excellent sense of smell, and they’re relatively easy to train. And they’re easier to use for odor detection than other animals traditionally used for their olfactory capabilities.”
Dogs are most often used by security forces to detect drugs and explosives, says Lumbroso, but they generally respond to the directions of their trainer, making their work more of an art than a science. “I was looking for a way to automate and mechanize the training process, so it could be duplicated easily and installed in a variety of settings. And we have been able to achieve that goal using mice.”
Mice get it right every time
Here’s how it works: A person passes through a passageway in which a Bioexplorers system is installed. A fan passes air into a sensor receptor, and delivers it into a chamber with several mice. The mice, having gone through intensive behavioral training, sniff the air. If the odor is one associated with items the mice have been trained to recognize, like drugs or bombs, they move into another chamber – setting off an alarm. Security officers can then move in and stop the appropriate suspect.
“The mice rarely make an error, and the entire procedure is far less invasive or intimidating than the alternatives, like using dogs or X-ray machines,” says Lumbroso. “There’s no radiation, and no concern about being seen naked,” he adds.
The system is appropriate for use in any setting – airports, government buildings, shopping malls. In fact, the company has conducted several tests at sites in Israel to ensure that the sensors work in real situations, including at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall. More than 1,000 people passed through a Bioexplorers sensor – some having been given “suspicious” objects and substances to hold – and the mice made the right call every time, says Lumbroso.
The rodents employed on this security detail are specially raised lab mice, “which are very clean, and there is no chance that they will transfer diseases to humans, since there is no contact between the mice and the people passing through the sensor,” says Lumbroso.
The mice are trained over a period of about two weeks using a patented computerized program based on Skinner-style behavior theory and methods, “which we have tweaked using our own special technology and methodology,” Lumbroso says.
Rodents train easier than canines
He stresses that the mice are treated well; they “work” for four hours, and then rest for eight, to ensure they don’t experience sensory overload.
Each mouse’s “career” can be expected to last for about two years, and each sensor installation is staffed by four to eight mice. In order to prevent “false positives,” more than one mouse has to respond to the odor and move into the second chamber.
Lumbroso, who has a background in biology, has been working on the Bioexplorers system since 2004. “Most animals have senses of smell that can detect the items we search for, but it’s easier to train mice than many other animals,” especially dogs, the four-legged mainstay of the smell-detection industry.
“The main advantage of mice is that they can be integrated in a standardized training program, easily duplicable and deployable in numerous settings,” Lumbroso says.
With the product ready for market, the four-man Herzliya-based company has seen a great deal of interest, says Lumbroso, who is also looking for investors. Until now, funding has come from several angel investors, and Lumbroso hopes to secure new funding “to bring the project to the next level.”
The first systems will most likely be deployed in airports and public buildings, and a version for cargo examination has been developed as well. The system, which has not yet been priced, will be turnkey for buyers, and the company will carry out the necessary staff training. “We are also looking at developing systems for medical use, in which the mice can detect growths or other problems by smell, without the need for invasive procedures,” Lumbroso says.
Meanwhile, the company is close to closing some deals for deployment of the system. “Chances are good that in another year or so, you’ll be passing through a Biosensor system when you travel somewhere,” predicts Lumbroso.