Airbus to deploy bomb-sniffing sensors at select airports

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Airbus is testing a robotic nose that sniffs for bombs in airports.
Image: Koniku

Airport security has been a major concern ever since the events of 9/11. New technology continues to make air travel safer by scanning passengers and their bags. However, it isn’t perfect. That’s why Airbus wants to start scanning the air itself for signs of danger.

The firm is working to roll out an “electronic nose” device that works like a bomb-sniffing dog. It combines tech with living cells to constantly “smell” the air for signs of danger.

Robotic Sniffer

It’s common to see a working dog walking through the airport sniffing random bags to try and detect things like explosives and drugs. However, there is only so much area that one dog can cover during a shift.

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The robotic noses being tested by Airbus could theoretically sample the air itself rather than individual bags. By default, they could then pick up the scent of dangerous substances in the luggage of or on the person of anyone who walks by.

The company is reportedly partnering with a Silicon Valley startup called Koniku to develop the sensors. They are scheduled to be deployed into several airport screening tunnels in the latter half of 2020. It’s unclear at this time which airports will be outfitted with the sensors but it’s safe to assume that large international hubs will receive first priority.

Reportedly, the robotic sniffers utilize silicon processors that are augmented by living cells. Koniku’s founder Oshiorenoya Agabi says, “We have developed a technology that is able to detect smell—it’s breathing the air, and it’s essentially telling you what’s in the air.”

He goes on to add, “What we do is we take biological cells, either Hek cells or astrocytes—brain cells—and we genetically modify them to have olfactory receptors.”

The sensors detect molecular compounds and can respond in less than 10 seconds under ideal circumstances. This means that airport security and the TSA could intervene within minutes of a dangerous substance being detected. Moreover, since the sensors would scan almost every passenger, the chances of something slipping through the cracks are significantly decreased.

Understandable Suspicion

If the idea of a robotic nose sounds outlandish, that’s because the technology hasn’t had much success in the past. It is extremely difficult to combine silicon technology with living cells. Using such devices to test travelers in airports is something that has been attempted before—and ultimately failed.

Still, the fact that Airbus—a massive company—is testing the sensors with Koniku is a promising sign. It may mean that the startup has developed a reliable sensor that could be used on a large scale.

Regardless, that isn’t all Koniku wants to accomplish. The startup is also working on sensors that detect biological hazards—like viruses and even cancer. “You wake up in the morning, you breathe on our device… and we are analyzing, in a longitudinal fashion, your state of health. That is one of our big visions,” says Agabi.

Next time you’re at the airport—even if it isn’t for a few more months—be on the lookout for robotic noses.

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