back to article New BOMB detect-o-tech 'could give sniffer dogs competition': TRUE

Researchers working on a new type of bomb detector technology have made the rather underwhelming boast that their kit "could soon give bomb-sniffing dogs some serious competition". “Bomb-sniffing dogs are expensive to train, and they can become tired,” said study co-lead author Ren-Min Ma, one of the boffins who came up with …

  1. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    "One part per billion would be akin to a blade of grass on a football field."

    I worry about the accuracy of their research if they think there's as many as a billion blades of grass on a football field.

    1. Robert Helpmann??
      Childcatcher

      Blade of grass on a football field

      "I worry about the accuracy of their research if they think there's as many as a billion blades of grass on a football field."

      Turns out this is a mathematics project/thing currently used to teach kids how to estimate. There are a number of examples posted online. This one gave the result as "about 63,350,000." A bunch of 5th graders could have told them better.

      1. asdf

        Re: Blade of grass on a football field

        My favorite example was an angstrom being the amount the water level increased in an Olympic sized swimming pool when a house fly landed on the surface of the water. But similarly that might have been an underestimate and it might be more like the amount an ocean increases being that angstrom is such a tiny measurement.

  2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    So it's quite a sensitive detector of airborne contaminants.

    Which is usually quite a clever idea.

    But what sort of price are we talking and can you tune what it detects?

    1. phil dude
      Thumb Up

      Re: So it's quite a sensitive detector of airborne contaminants.

      indeed. And where's the published double blind trials, that's what we give the dogs....!

      P.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: So it's quite a sensitive detector of airborne contaminants.

        > where's the published double blind trials, that's what we give the dogs....!

        Are there published double blind trials of dogs as drug/explosive/cancer detectors? All the "TV documentary" presentations I've seen appear to have the handler know where the object is and hence open to the "Clever Hans" objection (animal taking cues from handler, not perceiving object).

        Whenever I see those cop show sequences of dogs sniffing London Tube passengers' crotches, it makes me think that the only thing stopping a judicial review is the farcical prospect of a barrister asking a police alsatian to explain its training on institutional racism...

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: So it's quite a sensitive detector of airborne contaminants.

          They introduced drug sniffer dogs on transit in Vancouver (!!!) after the supreme court ruled that a sniffer dog was reasonable grounds for a search - no SUS in Canada.

          The dogs were all Alsatians and when one bit a homeless guy the operators couldn't find any proof that they had received any drug training, then they couldn't find any proof that they had a rabies vaccination. Then they got removed (was only a trial, lessons learned etc etc)

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: So it's quite a sensitive detector of airborne contaminants.

      Been done before. They make the sensor more and m ore sensitive to they point where it could detect a single explosive molecule.

      First soldier, miner, quarry worker, demolition worker to walk through shuts the airport down.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    More security theatre ...

    This is what happens when the media starts to believe it's own hype.

    Terrorists are not some kind of Bondesque cat-stroking evil supergenuises with seemingly infinite resources at their fingertips. They are fanatics, with an unsystematic knowledge of science and engineering, doing stuff in their basements and kitchens.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: More security theatre ...

      But kitchens these days have access to more tools than before. Take vacuum sealers, for instance. Would even a detector as sensitive as claimed be able to pick out explosives double-sealed in vacuum bags, with the inner bag thoroughly washed before being packed in the outer bag? The bags are designed to be gas-tight and diatomic nitrogen and oxygen are smaller than nearly any solid explosive compound I can dredge up.

  4. frank ly

    "... difficult to arrange a test with actual PETN or TNT ..."

    Surely all they would need is a few milligrams to do a controlled test if their detector is really as sensitive as they claim?

    1. Crazy Operations Guy

      Re: "... difficult to arrange a test with actual PETN or TNT ..."

      Indeed.

      In many cases governments will lone out samples of these explosives to researchers (just need to call around and ask). Or as a better test, get a copy of a terrorist handbook and make it the same way that they do.

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: @Crazy Operations Guy

        "get a copy of a terrorist handbook and make it the same way that they do"

        Thanks, but no. I'd rather keep my limbs if you don't mind...

        If you really like stuff that is not nice to handle (for various reasons), just Google for "Things I won't work with" (for Derek Lowe's blog).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Crazy Operations Guy

          You don't need a big batch of it to test a detector, and could easily keep it below the "blowing your limbs off" threshold.

          Though it would seem easier to ask those who work with it if they could part with a quantity equal to a couple grains of sand. However, I suppose there's probably no sanity in the laws governing its control and even that small of a quantity is treated as being just as dangerous as a 55 gallon drum of the stuff.

  5. TaabuTheCat

    Curious about the dogs

    "...explosives dogs are more or less useless as detectors..."

    They seem to do quite well at detecting drugs, and now it seems, even cancer cells. It's interesting they do poorly at explosives. Any particular reason why? Is it poor training, or a "nose" thing that makes them less effective at detecting these particular types of molecules?

    1. Swarthy Silver badge

      Re: Curious about the dogs

      As I recall, Drugs dogs do well opposed to bomb dogs because the dogs are actually addicted to the drug(s) they are sniffing for. This is why they have a short working life.

      I'm guessing the cancer detection came up as part of Canis Lupis to help them ID the sick prey, and also avoid the possibly dangerous bits.

      The bomb-sniffing just doesn't have the evolutionary edge that cancer has, or the motivation of needing their next fix that drug-sniffing has. All it has going for it is the "nose thing".

      1. John 62

        Re: Curious about the dogs

        "As I recall, Drugs dogs do well opposed to bomb dogs because the dogs are actually addicted to the drug(s) they are sniffing for. This is why they have a short working life."

        Wasn't that Brian in Family Guy?

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Curious about the dogs

      Dogs do well for drugs when the operator is allowed to push the dog up against a hippie/person-of-color and say "go on boy". they are less good in double blind trials.

  6. chris lively

    Great article. As each paragraph unfolded I found it answering the various questions I had and addressed my thoughts around the feasibility of the tech. Keep it up.

    1. MadBof
      Happy

      Great article.

      Lewis, is that you?

      1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Re: Great article.

        No.

        C.

  7. TeaLeaf

    As for testing...

    How about getting someone who handles explosives for a living, and have the machine pick him/her out of a lineup. That is, after all, what they are trying to do isn't it?

    Nice to see another Lewis Page article.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: As for testing...

      Or somebody who handles playing cards coated with nitro-cellulose (admittedly a bit rare these days but still extant) or a heart patient with a bottle of "Nitrolingual" (a mixture of ethanol, a few micrograms of nitroglycerine and a soupçon of mint oil) in his or her pocket or any of a dozen other potential false positives.

  8. Mark 85 Silver badge

    So now that they've release a paper, will some Congress Critter pick it up on the news and start wanting to spend billions to put them all over? Will it actually work (since it's unproven) or just make everyone feel good like airport security?

  9. Stevie

    Bah!

    So, did anyone take the precaution of taking it into various places like airports, hotels, billiard halls etc and seeing what it thought it could smell before contacting the press?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What are they actually detecting?

    Looking at the original publication, it isn't competely clear what they are actually detecting. A more sensitive response to ammonium nitrate, a rather involatile salt, than to nitrobenzene, a volatile organic chemical, seems counterintuitive. I'd like to see more experimental detail on how they vaporised the materials and what control experiments they did to rule out other contaminants.

    Incidentally, the human nose can detect vanilla at parts per trillion levels.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What are they actually detecting?

      "Incidentally, the human nose can detect vanilla at parts per trillion levels."

      Not everyone. Some can't smell vanilla at all, and there's reason to believe there's a genetic reason for this.

      Sensitivity to vanilla IIRC stems from the fact the chemicals responsible for vanilla's odor are also emitted by humans, making it an associative scent.

  11. Scroticus Canis

    PETN not too stable. So if the shoe bomber met the underpants bomber .....

    ...and gave him a good kick in the nadgers then some thing should have gone boom. Except the home brewed PETN was probably as deficient as this pair were mentally. Praise be for retard terrorists.

    1. AbelSoul

      Re: PETN not too stable. So if the shoe bomber met the underpants bomber .....

      +1 merely for utilising that wonderful word, "nadgers".

  12. John Tserkezis

    Ahhh!

    That's why magic 8 balls have been really hard to get lately...

  13. Martin Budden
    WTF?

    Already in use?

    What about the explosive-sniffing wands that get poked into handbags etc already at airport security points? How does this new thing do anything that the existing wands don't already do???

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