This is one of the more unusual projects we have been involved in; looking at ways the bee could be used to counter the increasing risk of terrorism and smuggling. The technology was spun out of Unilever where it started as a means to "smell out" rotten fruit and vegetables. The current "gold standard" sensor, the sniffer dog, although effective requires a full time handler for each dog and can only work for a few hours per day. Honey bees have a highly tuned sense of smell and can be trained to react to specific smells in a few minutes. The question therefore became: would it be possible to train bees on an industrial scale and use them as an alternative to the sniffer dog?
Working with the Rothamsted Research Institute we investigated the lifecycle of honey bees and observed their proboscis response when presented with a recognised volatile. We developed software that was able to track the bee head, and measured this proboscis extension. This was done whilst working with Her Majesty´s Customs and Excise on ways bees could track tobacco, drugs and human trafficking.
Scenarios were produced showing ways in which bees could be reared, trained and self-loaded into special harnesses. These harnesses were arranged in a cassette form so that a panel of 10 bees could be trained simultaneously to one volatile. A small portable device was prototyped into which this cassette could be loaded and fed with air samples taken by customs officials in and around containers at ports. The bee´s proboscis response to the presence of drugs or tobacco was recorded by CMOS camera and the result fed back to the user.
The ability of bees as a means to recognise volatiles was proven. Bees were able to smell a pack of 200 cigarettes in a container through five layers of exterior packaging and testing with explosives also proved successful. It will allow more, if not all, vehicles to be tested as they pass through ports.
Rothamsted are working through the animal husbandry issues and a very basic system is being used for commercial purposes whilst steps are taken to translate this into a full security system.