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Sniffing out explosive material is priority number one at airports around the world. So what better way to go about implementing that task than by utilizing a device that mimics the human nose to literally 'sniff out' would-be terrorists with homemade explosive devices.
The Israeli-developed Mini-Nose is a portable, hand-held, highly-sensitive device which digitally recreates the mammalian olfactory processes for trace and particle detection.
Developed by Herzliya-based Scent Detection Technologies Ltd. (SDT), the Mini-Nose is a two-piece hand-held explosives detector consisting of a sampling unit and an analyzer, and was designed based on specifications provided by security organizations both in Israel and the US, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.
"Our novel non-radioactive green technology comprises cutting-edge solutions for transportation security officials who are tasked with daily screening activities in identifying potential threats," said the company's CEO Ofer Bengal.
According to the company's literature, SDT's "sniffer" technology is multi-disciplinary, which digitally recreates the mammalian olfactory process that is used to detect a wide range of substances with great accuracy and speed. It's based on a technology called High-Frequency Quartz Crystal Microbalance (HF-QCM) that, according to the company's Vice President of Business Development Doron Shalom, can sniff out trace levels of explosive chemicals at a lower cost and greater accuracy in comparison to existing explosive trace detection technologies.
"When you go through security checkpoints in some locations, you see equipment that may have performed well in the lab, but once deployed on the front lines loses much of its sensitivity and reliability," Shalom said.
"Our technology is portable, reliable, cost-effective and can also detect improvised explosives without the need for upgrades or changing of expensive dopents and drift tubes. The reality is that we are dealing with suicide bombers who can easily manufacture homemade explosives in their kitchens - that's the threat today, not the terrorist who is going to bring C4 or TNT to a large venue or transportation location."
Established in 2004, the company's focus has been to overcome the operational challenges faced by detection techniques such as radioactive-based Ion Mobility Spectroscopy (IMS) and mass spectrometry. But the seeds of the idea for the Mini-Nose go back 10 years when Shalom's father Moshe, a serial entrepreneur, first began thinking about the issue.
"It was a period when there were a lot of suicide bombings, and Moshe devised the concept with our Chief Scientist Dr. Lev Dayan, at the time a new immigrant from the former Soviet Union," said Doron.
"After we achieved a lot of milestones in product development and following consultations with top security authorities both in Israel and the US, we commercialized the Mini-Nose. We continuously involve government agencies and scientific experts in order to produce the best possible solutions to account for all factors that security officials are concerned with," he said, adding that the company is backed by Sequoia Capital, with additional funding from Israel's Ministry of Defense and the American Technical Support Working Group at the Pentagon.
The company has also attracted some security heavyweights, including its chairman of the board Shabtai Shavit, the former head of the Mossad, and advisory board member John Deutsch, the former director of the CIA and deputy defense director.
The Mini-Nose has also won the prestigious Frost & Sullivan 2006 Technology Innovation Award and most recently the 2007 Bronze Award in the category of best Portable Analytical Instrument Industrial Design Awards from Instrument Business Outlook (IBO).
The technology behind the Mini-Nose is based on an array of sensors and coatings which provide high sensitivity and selectivity for trace detection and identification.
"On the surface of each sensor is a chemical coating which is sensitive to different families of molecules of both explosive and non-explosive material," said Shalom. "When the sensors are exposed to the material, there's a change in the resonating frequency which is measured."
Identification of the substance is determined by means of proprietary pattern recognition algorithms that analyze the obtained data and match it with a library of digital signatures of different explosive chemicals.
According to Shalom, the trace detection technology can be used to screen clothing, baggage, ID cards, tickets, cargos and containers for any trace level of explosive chemicals - and it does it quickly, replacing today's cumbersome, slow, expensive and radioactive IMS based products while offering a fast throughput and cost effective solution.
"We possess a quick recovery time which is a key factor in resolving the long lines at airport security. And in terms of cost, the Mini-Nose is half the cost of an existing big airport security system," said Shalom.
Due to the sensors' unique design, the HF-QCM technology operates in dusty, humid, and high-traffic areas, maintaining its precision performance even in harsh "real world" environments.
"Maintaining sensitivity in these conditions is crucial for operating on ships and at vehicle checkpoints or first response sites." said Shalom.
"We tested the Mini-Nose with the Israel Military Industries central laboratories, part of the Defense Ministry. It's been put through a lot of hoops, and has been operationally deployed outside the natural lab environment. The big challenge is always to transfer what's worked in the lab into the field when it's being used by screeners who aren't as experienced as the researchers doing the initial testing."
And the results have been more than satisfactory.
"We're working closely with the TSA (Transportation Security Administration of the Department of Homeland Security), and the Mini-Nose is being used at security checkpoints in the US and throughout Europe as well as Israel and Asia-Pacific. There's great excitement about it, especially from the end users - the screeners in the field. They're happy to use a new device that solves the existing problems of explosives detection," said Shalom.
"I am very familiar with current IMS technology and have witnessed first hand the pains and discomfort of TSA screeners working with outdated equipment," added Tom Neugebauer, SDT's US Operations Manager. "SDT has virtually eliminated most if not all the problems that front-line security personnel face around the globe."
Currently boasting a 30-person staff at its Herzliya headquarters, SDT plans to establish a US-based company in Washington DC, and to move forward in the US market by setting up a production facility there.
And according to Shalom, explosives detection is just the tip of Mini-Nose's capabilities.
"This core technology gives us the capacity to check every scent and molecule in nature. Today we're focusing on explosives, but part of our future R&D will be sensors for use in narcotics, chemical and biological agent detection, as well as for water security," he said.
Just like their technology, the folks at SDT are just following their noses.