(CNN) – When it comes to finding explosives, sniffer dogs are hard to beat – their noses are sensitive enough to pick up scents emanating from the chemical vapors in bombs they are trained to detect.
But what if there was technology that could do just that, 24 hours a day and at a fraction of the price?
Koniku, a Silicon Valley-based startup founded by Oshiorenoya Agabi, is trying to create just that – high-tech sensors made from genetically engineered living cells that can detect odors in the air.
“We take biological cells, which are living matter, and modify them to give them the ability to recognize a smell – just like living biological matter works in your own nose,” Agabi told CNN.
The odor sensors can be installed in several locations, from the entrance to a terminal to the interior of the aircraft.
The cells are fused to a silicon chip that processes odor signals and guides them through a machine learning system for classification, performance improvement, and error correction. When a smell is detected as a security threat, the purple, jelly-like device called a Konikore lights up.
Koniku, in collaboration with the aerospace company Airbus, began field trials of the devices at Changi Airport in Singapore and San Francisco International Airport in December.
First line of defense
“Our goal is to give airports and airlines 100% situational awareness of the chemical, explosive and bacteriological threat,” says Julien Touzeau, Head of Product Safety at Airbus America.
The devices would act as a first line of defense, monitoring people entering the airport – and complimenting existing methods of detecting bomb threats like security scanners and dogs.
Airbus works to provide security services across the industry. The main request from airport partners is to find technology that “can detect a potential threat as early as possible,” says Touzeau.
Koniku has partnered with Airbus to develop the technology.
Weighing less than 350 grams and about half the size of a smartphone, the devices can be installed in several places: on the revolving doors at the entrance of a terminal, at the check-in counters or at the entrance of an aircraft.
Not only would this make them easier to implement than their dog counterparts, but also less expensive.
“Dogs work a maximum of 20 minutes, they’re easily distracted, and training is very, very expensive – it costs an average of $ 200,000 per dog,” says Touzeau.
The current Koniku prototype is worth around $ 3,000. Touzeau anticipates this will drop in the triple digits after mass production.
Potential uses for the device don’t stop with security, Agabi says. Recently, Koniku investigated whether the same virus detection technology as Covid-19 could be used after reports that dogs may be trained to spy on them.
While not being able to recognize the virus itself, respiratory diseases cause a change in body odor in people that dogs – or “electronic noses,” devices that can detect odors – may be able to sense.
Treximo, a biotech consultancy, is working with Koniku to test whether the devices can be used to detect Covid-19. If the studies are successful, the company will apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency approval early next year.
That would change its potential use and demand, says Agabi, who envisions the technology being used in a variety of public areas, from restaurants to soccer stadiums.
“In the post-Covid world, the virus is more of a problem than explosives,” he says. “We could enable the screening of millions of people, possibly at the same time, in common spaces where economic activities take place.”
Agabi was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. He founded Koniku in 2014 when he received a PhD in neuroscience and engineering from Imperial College London.
Some, however Scientists who specialize in electronic noses are skeptical of the technology.
Timothy Swager, chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says it would take “an engineering miracle” to accomplish what Koniku claims.
Integrating natural proteins into silicon circles is extremely difficult, and the fragility of cells and the complexity of their interactions with chemical substances make them difficult to work with.
“The e-nose concept has long been problematic and there is a graveyard of businesses in this general area,” Swager told CNN.
Kenneth Suslick, a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in electronic noses, adds that the lack of publications describing technology from Airbus, Koniku or a third party “is crying alarm bells.”
“When you have startup technology like this, the very first thing you want to do is get a patent,” he says. “After you’ve filed your patent, you’ll want to get it published because these publications give you credibility … and let other people evaluate the technology.”
Koniku filed a patent for the technology in 2016, but the results are still pending. Agabi says that since Koniku is a company that is not an academic research group, “it was sufficient to share all data with customers under nondisclosure agreements.”
Agabi is confident that Koniku will prove otherwise to the critics. He says recent tests by Airbus, along with Alabama police officers and FBI bomb technicians, showed that the devices could detect explosives better than trained dogs.
The airport trials are the next big milestone. “It’s the first time the new technology has been used on site, and we’ll try to understand how people interact with it,” says Agabi.
“Technology can be as advanced and modern as you want, but if it doesn’t provide value to people, it’s completely meaningless,” he says.