Posted: 28 May 2010 08:03 AM PDT
You remember the guy who got on the plane last Christmas and tried to light his underwear on fire? The scary part was that he had some dangerous explosives in his undies that could have blown a hole in the plane. Turns out we should have had a dog sniffing around.
I've written posts on canine olfaction and how sensitive a dog's sense of smell is. According to researchers, dogs can pick up odors in concentrations as low as parts per trillion. A wolf researcher I read about the other day said that wolves can detect a Moose as far away as a mile and a half downwind. They can really smell and this sense of smell is being used more and more to help prevent acts of terrorism.
There is a research outfit called the Canine Detection Research Institute that, among other things, trains dogs to pick up vapor trails of dangerous substances like explosives or related materials. Originally this group was charged with studying the dog's acute sense of smell with the goal of creating a machine that could duplicate the dog's olfactory ability. Sounds like something Halliburton would come up with. Create a machine that costs the tax payer $35 million to do the work of a rescue dog you could adopt for $75.
Fortunately, they found that the machine, while able to some of what the dog could do, could not put it all together. Basically the dog beat the machine hands down. And the dog has other advantages, too. Like mobility and the ability to go into tight spots where machines cannot go.
The dogs at the CDRI are trained in something called "vapor wake detection". That means that they don't have to smell any particular individual but instead can pick up vapors left in the wake of someone walking through an area.
This is particularly useful where crowds are involved like at sporting events or airports. The dog simply stands and samples the air at bottlenecks like baggage check-in or security lines. They can move through the crowd and pick up odors as people move through. They can even pick up a vapor trail of someone that has moved through an area fifteen minutes earlier and follow it to its source.
And, apparently dogs make terrorists really nervous. Their mere presence has been demonstrated to be an effective physical deterrent to terrorism.
Back to the underwear bomber. This is precisely the type of individual these dogs could foil. A dog trained in vapor wake detection would have smelled the PETN vapors from the explosive material taped in this guys undies. The various screening devices did not pick this stuff up, but a dog would have.
I've seen these dogs working at airports. I've seen them sniffing baggage that has been checked and I've seen them hanging around the security lines. I've also seen them at Border Patrol check points getting a whiff of the cars that roll by.
Frankly, they make me feel safer than the legions of TSA people who seem really good at detecting a tooth paste tube that is over three ounces, or that you forgot to remove your belt. Sadly, they missed the underwear bomber completely. I'd be all for more dogs at airports. That would make flying slightly more fun, a lot more safe and less like torture.
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