Dec 2, 2016 | By Benedict

A team of researchers has taken inspiration from the way dogs “sniff” odors to develop a new 3D printed device capable of detecting explosives and other contraband up to 18 times more effectively than other detection systems.

When we talk of dogs being man’s best friend, we are usually referring to the animal’s loyalty and sense of companionship—traits that have made canines one of the most widely domesticated animals on the planet. But dogs can be a friend to mankind in a much more serious sense, too: with their incredible sense of smell, dogs can be trained to sniff out danger, such as traces of explosives or other contraband, and can even find trapped or injured humans in disaster zones. With this in mind, a group of government and university researchers has attempted to draw inspiration from the unusual physiology of a dog’s nose, creating a 3D printed sniffing device that can dramatically improve the effectiveness of commercially available explosives detectors.

Behind this pup-tastic 3D printing research project is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which was working in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The group of researchers, who recently published their findings in Scientific Reports, used a 3D printer to create an artificial “dog nose” that would function as an adapter for a commercial explosives detector. According to the group, the 3D printed accessory improved detection by up to 18 times at certain distances.

“The dog is an active aerodynamic sampling system that literally reaches out and grabs odorants,” explained Matthew Staymates, a mechanical engineer and fluid dynamicist at NIST. “It uses fluid dynamics and entrainment to increase its aerodynamic reach to sample vapors at increasingly large distances. Applying this bio-inspired design principle could lead to significantly improved vapor samplers for detecting explosives, narcotics, pathogens—even cancer.”

In order to increase security in places like airports, trace detection devices are frequently used to try to pick up on any tell-tale chemical signs of explosive devices and other dangerous equipment. However, the effectiveness of such devices is often limited: unless the detector’s wand-like appendages scan immediately above an explosive trace, chances are it will go unnoticed. In their efforts to improve trace detection, the group of researchers saw that dogs—capable of precisely seeking out explosives, narcotics, individuals, and virtually anything else—could provide the solution.

When a dog sniffs in order to discern certain odors, it is actually exhaling five times per second in order to “pull in” and inhale as many odorants as possible, which can then be identified by the nose’s 300-million-odd receptor cells. With the help of a 3D printer, the NIST team was able to create a functional replica of this biological system, precisely replicating the external features of a female Labrador retriever's nose, including its shape, direction, and nostril spacing.

High-speed video and an aeronautical engineering viewing technique called “schlieren imaging” were used to test the function of the 3D printed dog nose, which was engineered to inhale and exhale at the same speed as a dog. During exhalation, both nostrils emit air jets downward and outward, which “draw in” vapor-laden air towards the nostrils. Then, during inhalation, that air is drawn through the nostrils and into the interior of the nose. Most detection devices do not use this alternating exhalation and inhalation method, instead favoring a continuous sucking motion.

Incredibly, testing showed that the 3D printed nose did in fact serve to improve the detection capability of the group’s chosen apparatus. Sampling efficiency using the artificial sniffing dog nose was four times better when 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) away from the vapor source and 18 times better at a distance of 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) when compared to a trace detection device that used continuous suction rather than the dog-like “active sniffing” technique.

“We’re not proposing that the next generation of vapor detectors have something that looks like nostrils of a dog on it,” Staymates said, but added that “there might be a smarter way to do it by controlling the airflow and almost forcing air to brush across the surface of these sensors, instead of just waiting for something to magically land on it.”

Given the successful testing of the device, the researchers decided to outfit a commercially available vapor detector with a 3D printed inlet that would enable it to “sniff” at the rate of a dog’s natural sniffing, rather than at 10-second intervals (as was standard on the machine). When the 3D printed add-on was installed, odorant detection was improved by a factor of 16 at a stand-off distance of 4 centimeters (1.6 inches).

“Their incredible air-sampling efficiency is one reason why the dog is such an amazing chemical sampler,” Staymates said. “It's just a piece of the puzzle. There's lots more to be learned and to emulate as we work to improve the sensitivity, accuracy and speed of trace-detection technology.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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