Pentagon's Latest Probe: Fido's Nose
WASHINGTON (AP) - A nose knows. Especially, Fido's.
That's what Pentagon researchers are counting on as they work to expand their repertoire of bomb detection devices to help protect U.S. forces in war zones. Even with the variety of technology available to detect biological and chemical weapons, nothing fares better than a canine's sense of smell.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is now looking to model the real thing with its RealNose program. The goal is to see if technology can match, or even top, the sniffer of man's best friend.
Thousands of research hours and millions of government dollars have been spent as scientists have sought to re-create a canine's nose, but few have come close. Instead, trained canines and their handlers have been deployed to screen at the nation's airports, sniff out potential bomb threats and even detect roadside bombs in Iraq.
RealNose is similar to past DARPA projects like the so-called Dog's Nose program that the agency worked on in the late 1990s for mine detection. The latest effort is expected to develop a better chemical detection tool by closely examining how a canine's sense of smell works, and than attempting to replicate it.
Because dogs' noses have the unique ability to detect thousands of chemicals with high selectivity and specificity, DARPA wants to re-create Fido's olfactory receptors.
By using the receptors, researchers will broaden their ability in detecting various odors, said Brian Cook, a team leader at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's RealNose project.
MIT, which is part of DARPA's project, has spent the past few years developing olfactory receptors and testing whether they can detect odors.
Defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. last week became the latest to receive a grant worth up to nearly $18 million to help design and develop DARPA's novel nose. A representative from San Diego-based SAIC was not available to comment.
Canine researchers said even small technological advancements could yield big dividends for the military.
"The intricacies of trying to emulate that system is so complicated,'' said Paul Waggoner, interim director of the Canine and Detection Research Institute at Auburn University. "They will just be able to achieve small pieces of it. Small, but extraordinarily significant.''
Engineers have backed away from previous claims that technology would quickly surpass the use of live canines for detection, he said. Now they suggest technology may be available in another decade or so that could potentially emulate some of a dog's smelling capabilities.
"There's always been an inclination to look for what is considered a high-tech solution, but that opinion has changed somewhat in terms of their appreciation of the capabilities of dogs,'' Waggoner said.
Even with advancements in technology, some remain skeptical. Using such detection devices outside of "pristine aromatic environments'' like airports is a real challenge, said John Pike, a defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity. org.
"The street stinks a lot more ... and just how close are you going to have to get for it to be effective,'' Pike said.
Still, military researchers remain hopeful a breakthrough is possible within about two years, maybe even around the holidays. SAIC's contract is expected to be complete by Dec. 25, 2010.