Can you really use bees as bomb detectors?
Inscentinel are famous as the first and only company to use contained honey bees to successfully detect the presence of substances, like drugs or explosives. They have worked with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, global defence companies and university research groups to develop this technology.
It’s well known that honey bees are incredibly sensitive to smell, able to track down pollen or food from miles away. People often think bees “sniff” the air – but in fact their olfactory sensors are on their antannae, unimpeded by a great big canine snout!
However since the 1960s researchers have been discovering that it’s possible to train bees to recognise new odours. People began to realise it might be possible to use bees instead of sniffer dogs.
How Do You Train a Bee?
The approach is based on a simple ‘Pavlovian response’ – repeatedly expose the bee to the smell you want them to detect, each time rewarding them with food. The bees respond surprisingly quickly. The problem is then how do you use this ability in practice? You can’t let bees fly around an airport checking luggage!
Inscentinel developed an ingenious system that contains the bees and electronically monitors the bees response to see if they are expecting a food reward. Inscentinel then designed this into a detecting machine (looking like a small vacuum cleaner) which samples air, records and displays the results.
Why bees – aren’t sniffer dogs good enough?
Dogs are great, but they are expensive and even though sensitive they can tire easily , get distracted or even be influenced by their handler. Bees are cheaper, take very little training and trials have proven that in the larger numbers they produce a statistically much more accurate result.
The Challenge – How do you train A LOT of bees?
During trials Inscentinel got very good at feeding individual bees by hand, but clearly this would never be commercially feasible. What they needed was a way to automate this process – but how?…
Well you ask Realise to design a bee training machine of course! The basic requirements were:
- Fit the same bee holder cartridges used in the detection machine so avoid rehousing the bees.
- Provide storage for the number of bees needed to be trained for each job.
- Simple and quick to use.
- Easy to disassemble and clean in a dishwasher to remove traces of previous training odours.
Realise and ML Electronics worked closely together to design the mechatronics of air conditioned “bee hotel” and “bee training room”. We brainstormed various ways to do this, coming up with 3 versions in CAD to test the function and assess costs.
From there we selected the most robust and cheapest concept to make in small numbers and developed this into a detailed 3D CAD virtual prototype.
The Bee Trainer uses a positive air pressure system to isolate the bees from any contaminated air and allows them to be transfered to the training section where the air conditioning automatically alternates between clean filtered air and the required sample, when feeding is triggered. The electronics and software monitor the bees progress to keep the training as short (and sweet!) as possible. There’s always a few bees who fail to “get it” (hey we can’t all be geniuses) and the system automatically selects the successfully trained ones that go on to work on the day’s detection job.
The first production run was made straight from the CAD virtual prototype and worked as expected. It has dramatically increased the number of bees that can be successfully trained, making it commercially viable. This has helped Inscentinel prove their system further to the Home Office and secure the next round of funding.
- Project URL: