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6 Unusual Members of Mother Nature's Bomb Squad

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Police, military, and security personnel have used dogs for years to locate explosives. In the last decade, homeland security and Middle East battlefronts have created an overwhelming demand for these four-legged finders that cannot always be met. Luckily, Mother Nature offers us a few other ways to detect things that go boom.

1. Bees

Bomb-sniffing dogs are great at their jobs, but they come with some drawbacks. It can take months to train a dog and his human handler, and keeping their skills sharp requires constant practice. Bomb dogs are also expensive, when you consider the costs of training, food, shelter, veterinary bills, and the salary of a dedicated handler. A UK company, Inscentinel, believes they have a cheaper, faster, but just as effective alternative: bees.

To train “sniffer bees," Inscentinel feeds the insects sugar water while exposing them to the smell of dynamite. After that, any time the bees detect dynamite, even in concentrations as small as a few parts-per-trillion, they'll extend their tongue-like proboscises, searching for a sugary treat. The training takes less than 10 minutes, but lasts for the bee's entire six-week lifespan. Although that is quite a bit shorter than the 10-year career of the average bomb dog, with these methods, Inscentinel can train about 500 bees a day, so there are always new sniffers ready to go.

Once the bees are trained, a few dozen are placed inside Inscentinel's handheld device, the Vasor136. Each bee is kept in place with a special bracket, and then monitored with an infrared sensor. If the sensors are set off by extended proboscises, an LCD screen alerts the human operator. Much like their six-legged partners, it only takes a few minutes to train a person to use the Vasor136.

With a quick training time, inexpensive food supply, and relatively cheap maintenance cost for a hive, bees can be a great alternative to bomb dogs. Best of all, in addition to bombs, bees can also be trained just as easily and quickly to sniff out illegal drugs or even some contagious diseases. And you thought they were only good for making honey.

2. Rats

Thanks to that whole Bubonic Plague thing, rats have gotten a pretty bad rap. But Bart Weetjens and his organization APOPO want to change all that with HeroRATS, a program that uses rats to safely and effectively clear minefields.

In case you're wondering, no, they don't just let the rats run across the minefield and see what happens. It typically requires at least 5kg/11lbs of weight to set off a mine, so even the African giant pouched rats used by APOPO, which weigh about 1.5kb/3.3lbs, can run through a minefield unharmed. To clear an area, the rats are accompanied by two human handlers who stand on either side of the danger zone with a wire running between them. The rat is tethered to the wire using a specially-designed harness, and the rodent runs back and forth across the area. If he stops to dig, it means he's detected the scent of dynamite. The mine is marked by a handler and the rat gets a piece of banana as a reward. With this technique, the team can clear a 300-square meter section of land in an hour. In comparison, two people using metal detectors would need two full days to cover the same area. Not only are the rats faster, but they can detect plastic-encased explosives that the metal detectors would miss.

Training HeroRATS takes about nine months at a cost of 6,000€/$7,400. But after that initial investment, they require very little medical care, are inexpensive to feed and shelter, and will live for up to eight years. In addition, they don't typically form tight bonds with specific handlers, a common occurrence with bomb dogs. This means that rats can easily work with any handler and still perform at a high level of accuracy.

Currently, APOPO operates in Mozambique and Thailand, with their headquarters and training facilities located in Tanzania. In addition to clearing minefields, the rats have also been used to detect tuberculosis, increasing the TB detection rates by 43% in partner hospitals. They’re also trying to train rats to enter debris left after an earthquake or other disaster to search for buried survivors.

The idea is catching on in America, too. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Army announced that it's working on a new program using bomb-detecting rats, called the Rugged Automated Training System (R.A.T.S.). Although they have no intention of replacing the military’s bomb-sniffing dogs, they’re looking at rats as a potential supplement animal to make bomb detection faster, cheaper, and more easily deployable to more units in the field.

3. Mice

An Israeli company, BioExplorers, is developing ways to train mice for use in public spaces like airport security gates, sports arenas, and even at drive-through toll booths to sniff out drugs or explosives. Similar to the handheld device from Inscentinel, the mice are housed inside an enclosure where they are monitored for signs of reaction to various scents. As a person walks past the enclosure, say just after they pass through the airport metal detector, the mice can get a whiff. If they react, the device beeps and red lights flash to warn a human operator. Training for one type of scent only takes about 10 days, with additional scents requiring a few additional days. But the mice can remember dozens of different scents, so they could become all-encompassing screeners in many different scenarios.

4 & 5. Dolphins and Sea Lions


Photo via the Official U.S. Navy Imagery Flickr account

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins and sea lions to detect and mark underwater mines. With the dolphins' underwater sonar capabilities, it’s been said they can detect the difference between a natural soybean and a man-made BB at a distance of up to 50 feet. When you consider that man-made sonar can’t differentiate between a rock and a mine, it’s pretty clear why dolphins are so useful in this capacity. Sea lions, on the other hand, use their excellent sense of sight – five times more powerful than man’s - to locate underwater mines. Once an explosive has been found, the animals point human handlers to the location by dropping an acoustic transponder or releasing a floating marker.

In addition to mines, the Navy’s dolphins and sea lions can also easily locate divers in places they shouldn’t be – say on the underside of a ship in a harbor. When an unauthorized swimmer is found, dolphins bump into the diver’s air tank and attach a strobe light connected to a buoy that floats to the surface so that sailors can apprehend the suspect. Similarly, sea lions clamp a special cuff around the diver’s leg. But instead of a strobe light, the cuff is attached to a line that runs back to a Navy ship, where the sailors aboard simply reel in the diver like the catch of the day.

Although the program has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became declassified. Since then, the Navy’s dolphins have mainly worked and trained in the waters around their home port of San Diego. However, they have been deployed to patrol for unauthorized swimmers in Puget Sound in 2010, and in the Persian Gulf in 2003, where they helped clear more than 100 mines during the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, they have been considered for a mission in the Strait of Hormuz after repeated threats by Iran to block the Persian Gulf’s only sea passage.

6. Plants


Photo via the Colorado State University Department of Public Relations

With assistance from Professor June Medford of Colorado State University, future bomb sniffers might not even have noses. Medford and her team in the Biology Department have genetically modified plants’ natural receptors to air and soil pollutants to detect explosives and other dangerous chemicals. If these bomb-sniffing plants absorb TNT from the air, an internal switch is flipped and they change color from green to white. Once the TNT has been removed, the plants return to their natural color.

Bomb-sniffing plants could easily become an early warning device for everything ranging from explosives to chemical and biological weapons or even environmental pollutants. The plan is to eventually have certain types of plants set up to detect certain types of dangers. For example, if the hydrangeas planted outside the airport are white, but the roses are still red, you know you have a bomb in the area, but not anthrax. Medford is working to make the gene “plug-and-play”, meaning this new gene sequence could be used on virtually any type of plant, like trees. This would make it possible to use an airplane or satellite to monitor the leaves in a neighborhood to determine the breadth of an area affected by a pollutant.

As of right now, the color change takes place over a couple of hours. While that’s still a great early warning window, Medford hopes to speed that up to only a few minutes in the future.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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