Will Airport Security Soon Include Scanners Filled with Bomb-Sniffing Mice?


Putting aside all the debates about detection thresholds and risk management and anti-terrorism integration, it’s pretty easy to know that TSA measures are just a bunch of security theatre: that’s not how they do it in countries where there’s lots of terrorism.

Airports like Israel and Britain and Spain don’t have the absurd spectacles we do, except when we make them adopt our policies.

And when companies in those countries design airport security technology, they don’t innovate in the direction of laughably stupid shoe scanners or humiliatingly invasive full-body scanners. Instead they brainstorm cheap, scalable ways of detecting explosives. Like bomb-sniffing mice.

The new technology, invented by Israeli start-up BioExplorers, puts eight trained mice to work in four-hour shifts. The mice are placed in three concealed cartridges in the side of an archway – basically just a metal detector-looking machine – and they sniff the air as passengers walk through. If they smell any of eight known explosives they get scared and run out of their cartridges into a back room, triggering an alarm.

BioExplorers ran a field trial last December to see if their mice could detect bombs, and the animals successfully caught 22 out of 22 explosives hidden on 1,000+ test passengers. Mathematically that’s roughly 1000% better – four zeros – than TSA agents did in a 2006 trial when they caught only 2 out of 22 fake explosives. It’s also much better than TSA’s bomb-detecting dogs did, which is what you’d expect since mice actually have more olfactory receptor genes than dogs.

All that said, our best guess is that these machines will never be deployed in US airports. Mice take a long time to train and – by the time you’re done – they don’t have many years left to live. Plus scanner lobbies have a really good deal going. They convinced airport security officials to purchase billions of dollars worth of invasive scanners that the public was bound to reject, and now they’re selling a new generation of slightly-less-invasive scanners to fix the controversy they themselves created.

Why would they want to give all that up for a cost-effective technology that potentially works better? That’s not how we do things here.

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