High-tech Fido could save lives in Iraq
When he led a U.S. Army bomb squad in Baghdad in 2003, Staff Sgt. Luke Stalcup carried electronic devices to track bombs on roads, in trash cans or in cars. But these man-made imitations of a dog's nose often proved disappointing.
“The machines I used in the field took a lot of maintenance and came up false a lot,” said Stalcup, now a student at Columbia. “They detected explosives when there were none.”
Like Stalcup, many bomb squad veterans admit the machines have some advantages--they never get tired or cranky, or bite anyone--but they still claim that nothing compares to a dog’s sensitivity.
A new device might change their minds. In April 2005, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created an original bomb-sniffing technique. Because their goal was to emulate a canine’s nose, scientists named the device Fido.
Fido looks like a large TV remote, weighs less than 3 pounds, costs $21,000 and is much more sensitive than existing systems. Research on the project started in 1997 under the Pentagon-funded “Dog’s Nose Program,” and teams at M.I.T. are still working on improvements.
“Previous systems only detected accumulation of particles,” said Melissa Buhr, a spokeswoman for ICX Nomadics, the Oklahoma-based company that works with M.I.T. on the project. “Fido can sense vapors from a distance, just how a dog would detect explosives.”
This artificial dog nose can be handheld or integrated on a mobile robot. The U.S. Army just ordered 100 Fidos to be built inside special robots and will send them to Iraq before the summer. With its seven-foot arm, the robot can place the sensor close to suspicious packages and reach through car windows and under vehicles. If Fido detects a bomb, the robot will destroy it.
Fido has been tested in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004, but the Pentagon refuses to say how successful it has been. “We don’t want the enemy to have that kind of information,” a Defense Department spokeswoman said.
The U.S. Park Police employed Fido in Washington last July to screen visitors on Independence Day. It will also be used at the America’s Cup sailing regatta in Spain last summer.
The device relies on a scientific breakthrough. In 2005, M.I.T. used nanotechnology to develop a material that is uniquely sensitive to TNT. Nanotechnology is science at a scale of billionths of a meter, and it manipulates particles to create new structures with unique properties.
“There hasn’t been anything like it before,” said Kevin Linker, an explosives specialist at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. “It’s a unique system.”
The Fido team, led by Timothy Swager and Vladimir Bulovic, is based at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, which is part of M.I.T.. The institute was founded in 2002 after receiving a $50 million contract from the Army. Its goal is to enhance "soldier survivability” through nanotechnology.
When the last version of Fido came out in 2005, Aimee Rose, a researcher at M.I.T., predicted the device would save lives. “We have a lot of faith in it,” she said.
At a Senate hearing in Washington last year, Swager said that “feedback from soldiers has been very promising.”
Finding a better way to detect bombs is vital in Iraq, where 1,000 American soldiers have been killed and another 11,000 wounded by improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, which are usually made by amateur bomb makers.
As it is, only one in five explosive devices causes any injury, according to Christine DeVries, a spokeswoman for the Joint I.E.D. Defeat Organization in Washington. And, although the number of bombs has increased, each I.E.D. is less effective than it used to be, she said, thanks to new detection devices, robots and armored vehicles.
However, there are so many of these bombs that the number of casualties is not going down: in December, 75 American soldiers were killed by I.E.D.s in Iraq.
The U.S. Army is increasingly relying on robots and technology to detect these explosive devices. In 2006, there were approximately 30,000 robotic counter-I.E.D. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, during which 11,000 bombs were neutralized and 100 robots destroyed, according to a spokeswoman for the Robotics Systems Joint Project Office in Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
Still, some scientists remain cautious. Jimmie Oxley, a chemistry professor and bomb expert at the University of Rhode Island, pointed out that Fido was very effective at detecting specific explosives in the lab.
“But it’s different in the field,” she said. “The machine doesn’t have a lot of flexibility if there are new explosives.”
Just like dogs, Fido needs to be programmed to detect a certain number of smells. If a new explosive has a different smell, Fido won’t detect it.
Scientists are not trying to replace dogs with the new technology. They just want to complement canines. “Fido is comparable to dogs in sensitivity, but we are not in the business of replacing dogs,” said Kip Schultz, a former dog trainer who now trains Fido users around the world.
Fido handlers need to know where and when to use the technology. In a parking lot, a dog will be more efficient because he can run straight to the suspicious car. For repetitive missions like screening thousands of bags, a dog might get tired or bored, and Fido will come in handy.
In spite of these differences, some see a resemblance between a robot-integrated Fido and a dog.
"It is truly amazing to see these robots maneuver and search for scent using the Fido sensor; they really look like high-tech dogs working to find explosive devices," Schultz said.