Zurich scientists develop device to rival the canine nose

A Swiss dog rescue team look for survivors in West Sumatra after a powerful earthquake struck the region in 2009. “Trained rescue dogs are still the best disaster workers, but they are often not immediately available" wrote the scientists. Keystone

Researchers from the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) have developed a kind of electronic rescue dog – a tiny sensor which can detect humans by smell. The equipment could be used to search for people buried by an earthquake or avalanche.

This content was published on May 16, 2018 - 18:47

The device consists of a combination of sensors which can detect acetone, ammonia, isoprene, CO2 and moisture, announced the ETH in a statementExternal link on Wednesday.

These metabolic products are emitted in low concentrations via a person’s breath or skin. Individually, these substances could come from sources other than humans, such as a fire, for example, but the combination of sensors “provides the scientists with a reliable indicator of the presence of people”, the ETH wrote.

Real life applications

The sensors have so far only been tested in laboratory conditions, in collaboration with Austrian and Cypriot scientists. The research team led by Sotiris Pratsinis, Professor of Process Engineering at ETH Zurich, would now like to test the pin-sized device in real life conditions to test its suitability for search and rescue missions.

“Trained rescue dogs are still the best disaster workers, but they are often not immediately available and dog teams have to travel from further afield,” wrote the scientists.

+ Learn more about avalanche detection in the digital age

While electronic devices are already being used during searches after earthquakes, they rely on microphones and cameras which can only locate entrapped people who are capable of making themselves either seen or heard beneath the rubble.

Fine tuning equipment

The ETH scientists would like to supplement this existing equipment with their newly developed sensors. In addition, drones and robots could also be equipped with the device, thus allowing inaccessible and remote areas to be searched for survivors.

Further potential applications of the device could include detecting stowaways and combatting human trafficking and people smuggling. 

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