Dogs vs. Machine for Detecting Explosives

Nose to nose, when it comes to portability, dogs win

Terminal One at Pearson International Airport is an assemblage of straight lines, shallow curves and smooth surfaces. It looks like the home of technology, a place where things could run smoothly in the complete absence of life.

Inside, an electronic arsenal keeps at bay terrorists, firearms, bombs, narcotics and farm pests. The arsenal includes hi-tech gadgets that detect explosives and drugs, X-ray machines, and biometric iris scanners that identify travellers based on the patterns in their eyes.

It also includes one "no-tech gadget" the domestic dog.

Dogs have been humankind's detection and tracking device of choice for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

In the past 50 years, police, the military, airports, security and others have used canines to sniff out drugs, bombs, gunpowder, currency, landmines, gas leaks, food and human bodies.

In London, after two rounds of terrorist bombings, the police are using dogs to check backpacks in the London Underground and at train stations.

But in an age when new techno gadgets come online everyday, rendering yesterday's model obsolete faster than you can point and click, how long will it be before technology replaces man's best friend?

"It will happen, and it has to happen because we're living in a very high-tech society right now," says Ron Mistafa, whose Alberta company, Detector Dog Services International, trains and sells German shepherds, giant schnauzers, Labrador retrievers and Belgian Malinois.

Mistafa reckons he has no more than 15 years before his dogs have been replaced once and for all by machines.

In many respects, it has already happened at Pearson.

"We don't use dogs," says Kevin McGarr, vice-president of strategy for Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), the Crown corporation that inspects passengers and their baggage before they board (the federal Canadian Border Services Agency handles arrivals).

"We use machines and screening officers... I'm not sure why other agencies would use dogs."

Thirty years ago, airports didn't use anything, says Mark Elliott, director of product management for Smiths Detection (Toronto Ltd.), which makes many of the airport inspection machines. "Then they put in metal detectors because the threat was guns and knives."

Next came X-ray machines, then explosives detectors. "In many cases, it's a matter of a new threat, plus the capability being developed to detect it," Elliott says.

So now airports are full of machines."Every airport in Canada, no matter how big or how small, has one of our Ionscan explosives detectors," Elliott boasts.

With an Ionscan, a security or Customs officer wipes a passenger's baggage, transferring solid particles to a swab that is put into the machine. The device breaks down the molecules into smaller particles, creating a fingerprint that is processed by a computer. The software contains a database of fingerprints for substances such as drugs and explosives.

"The biggest improvement in the last 10 to 15 years was going to trace technology from vapour technology," Elliott explains. This has made it possible to detect vapourless explosives such as C4 and makes it simple to upgrade the Ionscans to detect substances newly recognized as threats, he says.

In recent years, the Ionscan has been reconfigured to detect ecstasy and date rape drugs such as Rohypnol.

Besides arriving passengers, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) checks cargo and mail arriving by air, rail, sea and sometimes truck. For doing checks in remote places, it has mobile stations.

Ian Falzon, acting superintendent of CBSA's commercial operations at the airport, shows off the prototype "Comet" truck. It's a Swiss Army truck of sorts, with sliding panels, pull-out shelves, extendable ladders, a generator and gadgets including an Ionscan, DVD players and a snake-eye scope for peering inside packed crates and boxes. There's also a machine called a Sabre, resembling a hand-held vacuum cleaner. It can detect powders but also has a sniffer mode for detecting gases.

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