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Developing an Electronic Dog's Nose

By Maj. Donna Miles, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 15, 1998 – Fido could turn out to be a deminer's best friend.

As part of the Defense Department's effort to come up with better ways to detect land mines, DoD's most cutting-edge research agency is working to mimic one of the most reliable detection methods ever found -- the dog's nose.

Dogs have a highly developed sense of smell that has long been used to track down fugitives and missing children and to identify drugs and explosives. They've also been used by contractors in Bosnia to help detect mines.

So why not enlist more canines into the force? Regina Dugan of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said dogs, as efficient as they may be in detecting mines, have limits, too. They generally can't work much more than 30 minutes at a time without getting fatigued and, just like people, they're affected by weather and other environmental factors.

And no matter how well-trained dogs may be, she said, they're only as good as their handlers, who sometimes inadvertently send mixed signals that taint the results.

Dugan is trying to develop an "electronic dog's nose" that offers all the capabilities of the dog, without the drawbacks. If successful, the three-year, $25 million research program could revolutionize mine detection techniques.

The problem with current techniques, Dugan explained, is that they don't single out characteristics unique to land mines. As a result, they set off a lot of false alarms. Ground-penetrating radars, for example, identify changes in the electrical properties of soil and can be falsely tripped by rocks and tree roots. Metal detectors can be affected by metal debris present wherever humans have been. Infrared sensors look for buried objects, but they can be triggered by vegetation, shadows and changing moisture levels in the soil.

Dogs, on the other hand, can be trained to identify the characteristic unique to land mines and other ordnance -- the scent of explosives. And the dog's sense of smell is so refined, Dugan said, that it can differentiate between two very similar odors, reducing the likelihood of false positives.

Putting this capability into a piece of equipment is no easy task. Dugan said the electronic dog's nose will have to identify and respond to the specific odor of land mines and fit in a small, lightweight, power-efficient package that's sturdy enough to survive field use. In a major milestone toward that goal, prototype sensors are scheduled for field tests this fall at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Once developed, Dugan said the technology could have a whole range of other military and commercial uses. For example, it could be programmed to "smell" contaminated diesel fuel, chemical warfare agents in the atmosphere, volatile chemical compounds in the home, and even tainted foods.

But most importantly, Dugan said, she can envision a day when the electronic dog's nose becomes almost standard-issue for ground troops deployed in high-threat areas.

"They may for the first time have the truly unparalleled mine detection capability offered by the canine," she said, "without the four-legged furry creature."

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