Sniffer dogs are hard to beat when it comes to detecting explosives as their noses are so sensitive that they can absorb odors released from the chemical vapors contained in bombs they are trained to recognize.
But what if there was a technology that could do the same thing, working 24 hours a day and at a fraction of the cost?
Established by Oshiorenoya Agabi, Koniku is a US-based company which is trying to create high-tech sensors made from genetically modified living cells that can detect odors in the air.
“We take biological cells, so living matter, and we modify them to give them capabilities to detect a smell in the same way that living biological matter in your own nose functions,” Mr. Agabi tells.
For classification, performance improvement and error correction, the cells are fused with a silicon chip that processes odor signals and passes them via a machine learning system. The purple, jelly-like device, called a Konikore, lights up if a smell is recognized as a security threat.
Having performed well in preliminary tests, Koniku, developed in partnership with the European aerospace company Airbus, will begin the testing process of the equipment at Singapore’s Changi Airport and San Francisco International Airport in December this year.
“Our objective is to provide airports and airlines with 100% situational awareness on the chemical, explosive, bacteriological threat,” says Julien Touzeau, head of product security for Airbus America.
Early detection of threat
The devices could serve as a first line of defense, monitoring individuals as they enter the airport, complementing existing methods, such as security scanners and dogs, for detecting bomb threats.
Airbus works to provide security services in the industry and Mr. Touzeau says that the key request it gets from airport partners is to find technologies capable of “detecting a potential threat as early as possible.”
The devices, weighing less than 350 grams and roughly half the size of a smartphone, can be placed in various locations like on the revolving doors at the terminal entrance, at the check-in desks, or at the aircraft entrance. This would make them not only easier to deploy, but more cost-effective than their canine counterparts.
“Dogs work for 20 minutes maximum, they can be easily distracted, and they are very, very expensive to train, it’s an average cost of $200,000 per dog,” says Mr. Touzeau.
The current Koniku prototype is worth around $3,000. Mr. Touzeau expects this to drop into the three-figure range once it is mass-produced.
Potential for virus detection
Potential uses for the device, Mr. Agabi says, do not stop at security. Recently, following news that dogs might be able to sniff it out, Koniku has been researching whether the same technology may be used to identify viruses like COVID-19.
Although the actual virus cannot be identified, respiratory disorders induce a change in the body odor of sufferers, which can be picked up by dogs or “electronic noses,” which refers to devices that can detect odors.
In partnership with Koniku, Treximo, a biotech consulting firm, is investigating if the devices can be used to detect COVID-19. The firm says that if the trials are successful, it will apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) early next year for an emergency-use permit.
According to Mr. Agabi, who anticipates the technology to be used in a wide variety of public spaces, from restaurants to football stadiums, this will transform its potential use and demand.
“In the post-COVID-19 world, the virus is more of an issue than explosives,” he says. “We could allow the screening of millions of people, potentially simultaneously, in shared spaces where economic activities take place.”
Is it really feasible?
Some researchers specializing in electronic noses, however, are doubtful about the technology. Timothy Swager, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, says that “some scientific miracle” will be needed to pull off what Koniku claims.
It is extremely difficult to integrate natural proteins into silicon circuits, he says, and the fragility of cells and the complexity of their interactions with chemical substances make them difficult to work with.
“The e-Nose concept has long been problematic and there is a graveyard of companies in this general area,” Swager said.
Kenneth Suslick, a professor who specializes in electronic noses, adds that the lack of publications detailing the technology from Airbus, Koniku or a third party, “screams alarm bells.”
“When you have a startup technology like this, the very first thing you want to do is patent,” he says. “After you’ve submitted your patent you want to publish, because those publications give you credibility and they let other people evaluate the technology.”
A patent for the technology was filed by Koniku in 2016, but results are still pending. Mr. Agabi says that because Koniku is a company and not an academic research group, “it was sufficient under non-disclosure agreements to share all data with customers.”
Mr. Agabi is optimistic that the critics will be proved wrong by Koniku. He says Airbus’ latest trials, along with law enforcement officials in the US and FBI bomb technicians, have found that the devices were able to detect bombs better than trained dogs.
The airport trials are the next big milestone. “It’s the first deployment of the new technology and we will try to understand how human beings interact with it,” says Mr. Agabi.
“Technology can be as advanced and cutting edge as you want, but if it’s not delivering value to people, it’s totally meaningless,” he concluded.