Airbus to deploy smell sensors to detect explosives on passengers

Airbus is planning to install jellyfish-like sensors at airports that mimic bomb-sniffing dogs’ ability to detect dangerous chemicals and explosives, using “game-changing” technology built from living biological cells that can “smell” molecular compounds.

In partnership with Koniku, a neurotech start-up in northern California’s Bay Area, the European aircraft maker said it will place multiple odour-detection devices in select airport screening tunnels later this year that can smell hazardous materials. It later might be able to sniff out diseases such as the novel coronavirus.

“The technology has a very quick response time of under 10 seconds in best conditions,” Julien Touzeau, head of product security for the Americas at Airbus, told the Financial Times. “With this level of maturity it’s an incredible result and hopefully it will improve over time.”

Machines that see, hear, touch, move and even think are common, but the ability to understand scent is notoriously difficult. Attempts to build “smell cameras” to capture odours and store them for playback have not come close to the human level.

Nor have efforts to build “electronic noses” to displace dogs had much success. Trained dogs, according to Harvard Health, can “almost unerringly” detect prostate cancer in urine samples of patients not even showing symptoms. 

Airbus said what makes Koniku’s technology unique is that it builds silicon processors augmented with living cells. These purple, jellyfish-like sensors, currently in a prototype stage, aim to mimic processes found in nature.

“The starting point for Koniku is this: biology is technology,” said Oshiorenoya ‘Osh’ Agabi, a Nigeria-born physicist who founded the company in 2015.

“We have developed a technology that is able to detect smell — it’s breathing the air, and it’s essentially telling you what’s in the air. What we do is we take biological cells, either Hek cells or astrocytes — brain cells — and we genetically modify them to have olfactory receptors.”

Koniku has fewer than 20 employees and has raised only $5.5m, but Airbus expresses great confidence in its potential and says that together they will create “a game-changing, end-to-end, security solution”.

A risk is that these devices follow in the trajectory of “puffer machines”, widely used at airports after the 2001 September 11 attacks. These blew compressed air at passengers and then analysed the dislodged particles for traces of explosives. By 2010 it became clear they were both unreliable and costly to maintain.

Airbus has been working with Koniku since 2017 “to meet the rigorous operational regulatory requirements” of air travel. Its primary goal is to install these sensors on passenger jets, forming a “last line of defence” against security threats, Mr Touzeau said.

In light of Covid-19, it is also exploring the sensor’s detection capabilities to include “biological hazards” so it could detect people with contagious viruses. This is unlikely to be ready before a vaccine is developed.

That idea is based on how certain diseases emit specific odours. If the molecular structures of those odours were to be mapped, machines could recognise their patterns.

Koniku’s jellyfish-like sensor is an electronic nose that can smell hazardous materials © Airbus

Mr Agabi has grand visions for the technology beyond air travel, foreseeing applications from agriculture to defence. His hope is to deliver a breathalyser-type product “for every home” that people would breathe into for early detection of diseases, including cancers.

“You wake up in the morning, you breathe on our device, and we are collecting that data and we are analysing, in a longitudinal fashion, your state of health. That is one of our big visions,” he said.

In March, chipmaker Intel demonstrated how its “neuromorphic” chip called Loihi — built to imitate how a human brain works — had learnt to recognise “10 hazardous chemicals, even in the presence of significant noise and occlusion”.

Mike Davies, director of Intel’s neuromorphic computing lab, said the first uses of “electronic nose systems” were likely to be bomb-sniffing and detecting leaks. In the far future he also believes consumer applications could include disease detection.

“You might have this built into your smartphone,” Mr Davies said.

Still, Koniku’s ambitious vision can sound so outlandish that Airbus executives had some initial concerns that it could be another Theranos — the fraudulent blood-testing start-up once valued at $9bn.

“We talked about it a lot, the Theranos case, from the very beginning,” said Mr Touzeau, referring to when Koniku first pitched to Tom Enders, the former Airbus chief executive, in 2017.

That initial meeting led to the venture capital arm of Airbus investing in Koniku, but only after it sent a team to Silicon Valley to assess the start-up’s claims. Separately, it hired a third-party — which Airbus will not name — to investigate.

“Because, of course, we make things fly — we don’t make DNA and biology,” Mr Touzeau said. “And we basically confirmed that what Koniku was doing is not existing anywhere else in the world.”