The mice in this detection unit have been trained to run into a certain area inside the container if they smell illicit substances.
An Israeli biologist named Eran Lumbroso wants to make mice the cutest little soldiers in the global war on terror, and if his efforts are successful they could result in mass layoffs of bomb-sniffing dogs. A decade ago, Eran was an officer in the Israeli Navy and took it upon himself to try to curb the frequent suicide bombings that occur on Israel’s municipal buses. In the process, he discovered that rodents were more efficient at detecting explosives than canines.
“They have more olfactory receptors than dogs,” Eran said. “Also, we can use multiple animals, instead of just one.”
Eran’s naval service put him in charge of teaching various animals to recognize explosives. Mice showed particular promise, so after he resigned from duty in 2004 he designed a training program for rodents. “I did this in my garage,” he said. “Luckily, my wife didn’t laugh. She didn’t know if it would succeed, but she trusted that I knew what I was doing.”
Using theories of negative reinforcement, Eran and his team trained groups of four to eight mice to fear the smell of 15 different explosives, including TNT, C4, and RDX. “It’s like in nature, they’re afraid of the cat so they run to their burrows,” Eran said. “In the same way, they’re running from the target odor and into the reporting area,” a space inside the detection unit where mice flee after smelling something suspicious.
Over the past eight years Eran has trained mice to sniff out narcotics, pesticides, and even money. And while his conditioning process relies on harassment and fear, he insisted that his animals are well loved. “We give them good space and good food,” he said. “We like animals. We don’t want to harm them.”
Eran has gone out of his way to prove the merits of his methods. In 2010, he took his mice to a Tel Aviv shopping mall and screened more than 1,200 people, including 20 predetermined targets who were carrying assigned suspicious materials. The targets were all identified with only one false alarm. Eran’s experiment drew the attention of the security firm Tamar, leading to the sale of his training system to the company in early 2012.
His furry freedom fighters may be crawling around airports and cargo carriers within the year. “I hope to get some money,” he said, “but mostly I’d like this world to be a little safer.”
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