Struck by the legendary sniffing skills of man's best friend, scientists in the United States fitted a dog-inspired plastic nose to an explosives detector, and reported Thursday it worked much better.
The prosthetic nose, which is programmed to take multiple "sniffs" of the air rather than a single, long suction, made the machine 16 times more sensitive in detecting molecules in the air, the team reported in the journal Scientific Reports.
"By mimicking the way a dog sniffs, we can improve the performance of commercial trace vapor detection systems," study co-author Matthew Staymates of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told AFP.
"Our findings suggest that the next generation of... detection systems may benefit from lessons learned from the canine."
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This may improve detection of anything from explosives, narcotics, disease-causing pathogens, perhaps even cancer.
Staymates and a team read up on the workings of the canine "nose" when the dog is sniffing. The organ exhales and inhales about five times per second to collect odors, which are then analyzed by some 300 million receptor cells.
The team then used a 3D printer to create the outer shell of a plastic "nose" fashioned after the snout of a Labrador retriever.
The prosthesis was fitted to a commercially-available explosives detector, which was also reprogrammed to inhale and exhale in quick succession, sniffing in essence, rather than non-stop suction.
With the alterations, the machine was 16 times better at detecting odors from a distance of four centimeters (1.6 inches), the team observed.
Though it seemed "counterintuitive," breathing out during sniffing actually drew odor-laden air towards the nostrils, the researchers found.
Dogs are widely used in explosives and drug detection, search and rescue operations and more recently also in cancer diagnosis.