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SNIF

Ottawa-based Ambrose Scientific says it has come up with an ‘artificial nose’ as sensitive as that of the best tracking dog.


June 23, 2009
By Allain Gest

Ottawa-based Ambrose Scientific says it has come up with an ‘artificial nose’ as sensitive as that of the best tracking dog.

The new device, which can be used with a wireless helmet mounted ‘heads-up’ display or hand-held like a metal detector, identifies more than 134 pre-determined scents or can find and follow specific odours once it has been introduced to the device.

Dr. John D. Odeur, chief executive officer and head scientist for Ambrose Scientific, stated the new device will revolutionize the way police and military personnel conduct searches for contraband, track suspects from crime scenes or search for lost persons.

“There will no longer be a need to utilize dogs, pigs or other scent seeking creatures,” Odeur stated. “This device will essentially turn the work over to the human seekers instead.”

The new portable device, known as the Super Nasal Identi-Fier (SNIF), is the result of years of research. Funding for the research was supplied by a Federal government inscentive program developed through the cooperation of the departments of Environment and Heritage Canada. These two agencies were approached by Ambrose Scientific three years ago and granted $50 million to develp it further. Another $20 million came from the Solicitor General’s department and RCMP and Nortel pension funds.

“The device itself is a testament to the dogged determination of these government and private agencies,” Dr. Odeur stated. “Their faith in our ability to keep our nose to the ground is enviable.”

The SNIF device can use a wireless headsup display similar to modern jet fighters or night vision devices. The display is connected to a computer about the size of an iPod, which is connected to the SNIF intake.

A user must first ‘sniff’ themselves with the SNIF so it can detect and screen out the scents emanating from their person. This process can take from mere seconds to as long as 10 minutes, depending on the operator’s personal hygiene, Ambrose notes. The company’s testing demonstrated that not all officers are “compatible” with the device, he adds, and some should stay “well clear” of the search area, especially during calibration. Several prototypes had to be scrapped after sensitive scent detectors were overloaded.

SNIF is pre-programmed to immediately identify cordite, heroin, marijuana, gasoline and other scents. When used in the field to search for suspects, cadavers or lost children, SNIF can combine preprogrammed data with scents presented to it from clothing, shoes or other personal items. The helmet display will show the operator the scent identified, along with a range finding image of scent strength displaying along a projected path of strongest exposure.

“The display shows the user a mixture of actual and projected paths of travel. This was developed from years of research, combined with biological and computer algorithms,” states Odeur. “Once the detecting device has filtered out scents of no significance to the search, it is free to hone in on aromas actually being sought.”

Sensitivity has been a problem with the device, Odeur admits. Unlike dogs, SNIF can be “overwhelmed” by “odour-rich” areas.

“It should be kept clear of intense areas such as station locker rooms, drunk tanks and especially the back seats of certain squad cars, which can knock out its sensitive detectors,” Odeur warns. “We could make it less sensitive but that would dramatically decrease its tracking performance in the field.”

Ambrose is working on a attenuation device so the operator can dial in less sensitivity in more odourific areas. This would have the added benefit of allowing the device to be operated by less “neutral” personnel.

The company is also considering moving its laboratory and production facility from its current location, which is near Parliament Hill, to a “less intense” area, Odeur adds. “That will make unit calibration and testing much easier.”

Scientists have previously devised methods for quantifying the intensity of odours, particularly for analyzing unpleasant or objectionable smells released by industry. A field olfactometer such as the ‘Nasal Ranger,’ for example, can determine the magnitude of an odour, but is nowhere near as sensitive as SNIF, Odeur explains.

A dog’s nose is much more sensitive than a human’s, but dogs have drawbacks, says Odeur, including cost of ownership, distractibility and inability to get into small spaces.

“SNIF can be carried in your trunk and used only when needed without any special expertise or training. Pull it out, sniff yourself and you’re ready to go without having to wait for the canine team to arrive.”

Although the SNIF unit will be released for sale on April 1st, Ambrose plans to unveil the device at the Blue Line Trade Show and demonstrate it on staff, exhibitors and attendees. The demonstration will be presented at the Blue Line centre exhibit on both days of the show.

“I suspect some people may be surprised by what it can detect,” he says, “but there’s no need to worry. We’ll use the heads-up display so only staff will know from whom odours emanate!”


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