August 23, 2007, Updated September 12, 2012

The Mini-Nose – ‘There’s great excitement about it, especially from the end users – the screeners in the field.’Sniffing out explosive material is priority number one at airports around the world. So what better way to go about implementing that task than by utilizing a device that mimics the human nose to literally ‘sniff out’ would-be terrorists with homemade explosive devices.

The Israeli-developed Mini-Nose is a portable, hand-held, highly-sensitive device which digitally recreates the mammalian olfactory processes for trace and particle detection.

Developed by Herzliya-based Scent Detection Technologies Ltd. (SDT), the Mini-Nose is a two-piece hand-held explosives detector consisting of a sampling unit and an analyzer, and was designed based on specifications provided by security organizations both in Israel and the US, including Homeland Security and Pentagon bodies.

According to the company’s literature, SDT’s “sniffer” technology is multi-disciplinary. It integrates crystal science, chemistry, electro-chemistry, coating technology, absorption, mechanics, electronics, embedded low power computing, software, and digital data processing. It also includes something called High-Frequency Quartz Crystal Microbalance (HF-QCM) – a technology that, according to the company’s vice president of business development Doron Shalom, can sniff out trace levels of explosive chemicals at a lower cost in comparison to existing explosive trace detection technologies.

“When you go through security in airports, they have these big, bulky systems that involve taking a swab and swiping objects,” he told ISRAEL21c. “Our technology, can easily detect improvised explosives, which are the big threat today. We’re dealing with suicide bombers who can manufacture homemade explosives in their kitchens – that’s the threat today, not the guy who’s going to bring TNT to 5th Avenue.”

“Our novel non-radioactive green technology comprises cutting-edge solutions for transportation security officials who are tasked with daily screening activities in identifying potential threats,” added the company’s CEO Ofer Bengal.

Established in 2004, the company’s focus has been to overcome the operational challenges faced by detection techniques such as radioactive-based Ion Mobility Spectroscopy (IMS) and Mass Spectrometry. But the seeds of the idea for the Mini-Nose go back 10 years when Shalom’s father, Moshe, a serial entrepreneur, first began thinking about the issue.

“It was a period when there were a lot of suicide bombings, and my father devised the concept with our chief scientist Lev Dayan, at the time a new immigrant from the former Soviet Union,” said Shalom.

“After we achieved a lot of milestones in product management and following consultations with the top security establishment both in Israel and the US, we established the company,” he said, adding that the company is backed by Sequoia Capital, with additional funding from Israel’s Ministry of Defense and the American Technical Support Working Group at the Pentagon.

The company has also attracted some security heavyweights, including its chairman of the board Shabtai Shavit, the former head of the Mossad, and advisory board member John Deutsch, the former director of the CIA and deputy defense director.

The technology behind the Mini-Nose is based on an array of sensors and coatings which provide high sensitivity and selectivity for trace detection and identification.

“On the surface of each sensor is a chemical coating which is sensitive to different families of molecules of both explosive and non-explosive material,” said Shalom. “When the sensors are exposed to the material, there’s a change in the resonating frequency which is measured.”

Identification of the substance is determined by means of proprietary pattern recognition algorithms that analyze the obtained data and match it with a library of digital signatures of different explosive chemicals.

According to Shalom, the trace detection technology can be used to screen clothing, baggage, ID cards, tickets, cargos and containers for any trace level of explosive chemicals – and it does it quickly.

“We possess a quick recovery time which is a key factor in resolving the long lines at airport security. And in terms of cost, the Mini-Nose is half the cost of an existing big airport security system,” said Shalom.

Due to the sensors’ unique design, the HF-QCM technology operates in dusty, humid, and high-traffic areas, maintaining its precision performance even in harsh “real world” environments.

“Maintaining sensitivity in these conditions is crucial for operating on ships and at vehicle checkpoints or first response sites.” said Shalom. “We tested the Mini-Nose with Israel Military Industries, which is part of the Defense Ministry. It’s been put through a lot of hoops, and has been operationally deployed outside the natural lab environment. The big challenge is always to transfer what’s worked in the lab into the field when it’s being used by screeners who aren’t as experienced as the researchers doing the initial testing.”

And the results have been more than satisfactory, Shalom reports.

“We’re working closely with the TSA, and the Mini-Nose is being used at locations in the US and throughout Europe. There’s great excitement about it, especially from the end users – the screeners in the field. They’re happy to use a new device that solved the existing problems of explosives detection,” he said.

Currently boasting a 30-person staff at its Herzliya headquarters SDT plans to establish a US-based company in Washington DC, and to move forward in the US market by setting up a production facility there.

And according to Shalom, explosives detection is just the tip of Mini-Nose’s capabilities.

“This core technology gives us the capacity to check every scent and molecule in nature. Today we’re focusing on explosives, but part of our future R&D will be sensors for use in narcotics, chemical and biological agent detection, as well as for water security,” he said.

Just like their technology, the folks at SDT are just following their noses.


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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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