Category Archives: military

Nanozymes as an antidote for pesticides

Should you have concerns about exposure to pesticides or chemical warfare agents (timely given events in Syria as per this April 4, 2017 news item on CBC [Canadian Broadcasting News Corporation] online) , scientists at the Lomonosov Moscow State University have developed a possible antidote according to a March 8,, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Members of the Faculty of Chemistry of the Lomonosov Moscow State University have developed novel nanosized agents that could be used as efficient protective and antidote modalities against the impact of neurotoxic organophosphorus compounds such as pesticides and chemical warfare agents. …

A March 7, 2017 Lomonosov Moscow State University press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in detail,

A group of scientists from the Faculty of Chemistry under the leadership of Prof. Alexander Kabanov has focused their research supported by a “megagrant” on the nanoparticle-based delivery to an organism of enzymes, capable of destroying toxic organophosphorous compounds. Development of first nanosized drugs has started more than 30 years ago and already in the 90-s first nanomedicines for cancer treatment entered the market. First such medicines were based on liposomes – spherical vesicles made of lipid bilayers. The new technology, developed by Kabanov and his colleagues, uses an enzyme, synthesized at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, encapsulated into a biodegradable polymer coat, based on an amino acid (glutamic acid).

Alexander Kabanov, Doctor of Chemistry, Professor at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy of the University of North Carolina (USA) and the Faculty of Chemistry, M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University, one of the authors of the article explains: “At the end of the 80-s my team (at that time in Moscow) and independently Japanese colleagues led by Prof. Kazunori Kataoka from Tokyo began using polymer micelles for small molecules delivery. Soon the nanomedicine field has “exploded”. Currently hundreds of laboratories across the globe work in this area, applying a wide variety of approaches to creation of such nanosized agents. A medicine on the basis of polymeric micelles, developed by a Korean company Samyang Biopharm, was approved for human use in 2006.”

Professor Kabanov’s team after moving to the USA in 1994 focused on development of polymer micelles, which could include biopolymers due to electrostatic interactions. Initially chemists were interested in usage of micelles for RNA and DNA delivery but later on scientists started actively utilizing this approach for delivery of proteins and, namely, enzymes, to the brain and other organs.

Alexander Kabanov says: “At the time I worked at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha (USA) and by 2010 we had a lot of results in this area. That’s why when my colleague from the Chemical Enzymology Department of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, Prof. Natalia Klyachko offered me to apply for a megagrant the research theme of the new laboratory was quite obvious. Specifically, to use our delivery approach, which we’ve called a “nanozyme”, for “improvement” of enzymes, developed by colleagues at the Lomonosov Moscow State University for its further medical application.”

Scientists together with the group of enzymologists from the Lomonosov Moscow State University under the leadership of Elena Efremenko, Doctor of Biological Sciences, have chosen organophosphorus hydrolase as a one of the delivered enzymes. Organophosphorus hydrolase is capable of degrading toxic pesticides and chemical warfare agents with very high rate. However, it has disadvantages: because of its bacterial origin, an immune response is observed as a result of its delivery to an organism of mammals. Moreover, organophosphorus hydrolase is quickly removed from the body. Chemists have solved this problem with the help of a “self-assembly” approach: as a result of inclusion of organophosphorus hydrolase enzyme in a nanozyme particles the immune response becomes weaker and, on the contrary, both the storage stability of the enzyme and its lifetime after delivery to an organism considerably increase. Rat experiments have proved that such nanozyme efficiently protects organisms against lethal doses of highly toxic pesticides and even chemical warfare agents, such as VX nerve gas.

Alexander Kabanov summarizes: “The simplicity of our approach is very important. You could get an organophosphorus hydrolase nanozyme by simple mixing of aqueous solutions of anenzyme and safe biocompatible polymer. This nanozyme is self-assembled due to electrostatic interaction between a protein (enzyme) and polymer”.

According to the scientist’s words the simplicity and technological effectiveness of the approach along with the obtained promising results of animal experiments bring hope that this modality could be successful and in clinical use.

Members of the Faculty of Chemistry of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, along with scientists from the 27th Central Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the Eshelman School of Pharmacy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA) and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNC) have taken part in the Project.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A simple and highly effective catalytic nanozyme scavenger for organophosphorus neurotoxins by Elena N. Efremenko, Ilya V. Lyagin, Natalia L. Klyachko, Tatiana Bronich, Natalia V. Zavyalova, Yuhang Jiang, Alexander V. Kabanov. Journal of Controlled Release Volume 247, 10 February 2017, Pages 175–181  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jconrel.2016.12.037

This paper is behind a paywall.

Hairy strength could lead to new body armour

A Jan. 18, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces research into hair strength from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD or UC San Diego),

In a new study, researchers at the University of California San Diego investigate why hair is incredibly strong and resistant to breaking. The findings could lead to the development of new materials for body armor and help cosmetic manufacturers create better hair care products.

Hair has a strength to weight ratio comparable to steel. It can be stretched up to one and a half times its original length before breaking. “We wanted to understand the mechanism behind this extraordinary property,” said Yang (Daniel) Yu, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego and the first author of the study.

A Jan. 18 (?), 2017 UCSD news release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

“Nature creates a variety of interesting materials and architectures in very ingenious ways. We’re interested in understanding the correlation between the structure and the properties of biological materials to develop synthetic materials and designs — based on nature — that have better performance than existing ones,” said Marc Meyers, a professor of mechanical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the lead author of the study.

In a study published online in Dec. in the journal Materials Science and Engineering C, researchers examined at the nanoscale level how a strand of human hair behaves when it is deformed, or stretched. The team found that hair behaves differently depending on how fast or slow it is stretched. The faster hair is stretched, the stronger it is. “Think of a highly viscous substance like honey,” Meyers explained. “If you deform it fast it becomes stiff, but if you deform it slowly it readily pours.”

Hair consists of two main parts — the cortex, which is made up of parallel fibrils, and the matrix, which has an amorphous (random) structure. The matrix is sensitive to the speed at which hair is deformed, while the cortex is not. The combination of these two components, Yu explained, is what gives hair the ability to withstand high stress and strain.

And as hair is stretched, its structure changes in a particular way. At the nanoscale, the cortex fibrils in hair are each made up of thousands of coiled spiral-shaped chains of molecules called alpha helix chains. As hair is deformed, the alpha helix chains uncoil and become pleated sheet structures known as beta sheets. This structural change allows hair to handle a large amount deformation without breaking.

This structural transformation is partially reversible. When hair is stretched under a small amount of strain, it can recover its original shape. Stretch it further, the structural transformation becomes irreversible. “This is the first time evidence for this transformation has been discovered,” Yu said.

“Hair is such a common material with many fascinating properties,” said Bin Wang, a UC San Diego PhD alumna from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and co-author on the paper. Wang is now at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology in China continuing research on hair.

The team also conducted stretching tests on hair at different humidity levels and temperatures. At higher humidity levels, hair can withstand up to 70 to 80 percent deformation before breaking (dry hair can undergo up to 50 percent deformation). Water essentially “softens” hair — it enters the matrix and breaks the sulfur bonds connecting the filaments inside a strand of hair. Researchers also found that hair starts to undergo permanent damage at 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit). Beyond this temperature, hair breaks faster at lower stress and strain.

“Since I was a child I always wondered why hair is so strong. Now I know why,” said Wen Yang, a former postdoctoral researcher in Meyers’ research group and co-author on the paper.

The team is currently conducting further studies on the effects of water on the properties of human hair. Moving forward, the team is investigating the detailed mechanism of how washing hair causes it to return to its original shape.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Structure and mechanical behavior of human hair by Yang Yua, Wen Yang, Bin Wang, Marc André Meyers. Materials Science and Engineering: C Volume 73, 1 April 2017, Pages 152–163    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.msec.2016.12.008

This paper is behind a paywall.

Solar-powered clothing

This research comes from the University of Central Florida (US) and includes a pop culture reference to the movie “Back to the Future.”  From a Nov. 14, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Marty McFly’s self-lacing Nikes in Back to the Future Part II inspired a UCF scientist who has developed filaments that harvest and store the sun’s energy—and can be woven into textiles.

The breakthrough would essentially turn jackets and other clothing into wearable, solar-powered batteries that never need to be plugged in. It could one day revolutionize wearable technology, helping everyone from soldiers who now carry heavy loads of batteries to a texting-addicted teen who could charge his smartphone by simply slipping it in a pocket.

A Nov. 14, 2016 University of Central Florida news release (also on EurekAlert) by Mark Schlueb, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“That movie was the motivation,” Associate Professor Jayan Thomas, a nanotechnology scientist at the University of Central Florida’s NanoScience Technology Center, said of the film released in 1989. “If you can develop self-charging clothes or textiles, you can realize those cinematic fantasies – that’s the cool thing.”

Thomas already has been lauded for earlier ground-breaking research. Last year, he received an R&D 100 Award – given to the top inventions of the year worldwide – for his development of a cable that can not only transmit energy like a normal cable but also store energy like a battery. He’s also working on semi-transparent solar cells that can be applied to windows, allowing some light to pass through while also harvesting solar power.

His new work builds on that research.

“The idea came to me: We make energy-storage devices and we make solar cells in the labs. Why not combine these two devices together?” Thomas said.

Thomas, who holds joint appointments in the College of Optics & Photonics and the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, set out to do just that.

Taking it further, he envisioned technology that could enable wearable tech. His research team developed filaments in the form of copper ribbons that are thin, flexible and lightweight. The ribbons have a solar cell on one side and energy-storing layers on the other.

Though more comfortable with advanced nanotechnology, Thomas and his team then bought a small, tabletop loom. After another UCF scientists taught them to use it, they wove the ribbons into a square of yarn.

The proof-of-concept shows that the filaments could be laced throughout jackets or other outwear to harvest and store energy to power phones, personal health sensors and other tech gadgets. It’s an advancement that overcomes the main shortcoming of solar cells: The energy they produce must flow into the power grid or be stored in a battery that limits their portability.

“A major application could be with our military,” Thomas said. “When you think about our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’re walking in the sun. Some of them are carrying more than 30 pounds of batteries on their bodies. It is hard for the military to deliver batteries to these soldiers in this hostile environment. A garment like this can harvest and store energy at the same time if sunlight is available.”

There are a host of other potential uses, including electric cars that could generate and store energy whenever they’re in the sun.

“That’s the future. What we’ve done is demonstrate that it can be made,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be very useful for the general public and the military and many other applications.”

The proof-of-concept shows that the filaments could be laced throughout jackets or other outwear to harvest and store energy to power phones, personal health sensors and other tech gadgets. It's an advancement that overcomes the main shortcoming of solar cells: the energy they produce must flow into the power grid or be stored in a battery that limits their portability. Credit: UCF Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-11-future-solar-nanotech-powered.html#jCp

The proof-of-concept shows that the filaments could be laced throughout jackets or other outwear to harvest and store energy to power phones, personal health sensors and other tech gadgets. It’s an advancement that overcomes the main shortcoming of solar cells: the energy they produce must flow into the power grid or be stored in a battery that limits their portability. Credit: UCF

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Wearable energy-smart ribbons for synchronous energy harvest and storage by Chao Li, Md. Monirul Islam, Julian Moore, Joseph Sleppy, Caleb Morrison, Konstantin Konstantinov, Shi Xue Dou, Chait Renduchintala, & Jayan Thomas. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 13319 (2016)  doi:10.1038/ncomms13319 Published online: 11 November 2016

This paper is open access.

Dexter Johnson in a Nov. 15, 2016 posting on his blog Nanoclast on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) provides context for this research and, in this excerpt, more insight from the researcher,

In a telephone interview with IEEE Spectrum, Thomas did concede that at this point, the supercapacitor was not capable of storing enough energy to replace the batteries entirely, but could be used to make a hybrid battery that would certainly reduce the load a soldier carries.

Thomas added: “By combining a few sets of ribbons (2-3 ribbons) in parallel and connecting these sets (3-4) in a series, it’s possible to provide enough power to operate a radio for 10 minutes. …

For anyone interested in knowing more about how this research fits into the field of textiles that harvest energy, I recommend reading Dexter’s piece.

Remembrance of things past

It’s Remembrance Day today (Nov. 11, 2016), a statutory holiday (in Canada) honouring the members of the military who have died and who have been injured in battle.

As for the survivors, our returning soldiers don’t have adequate support to reenter society after their tour of duty. Even more sadly, that has been true since time immemorial. The one hopeful aspect we have is increased awareness which will hopefully lead to needed changes.

Renata D’Aliesio, Les Perreaux and Allan Maki wrote a Nov. 4, 2016 article for the Globe and Mail about soldier suicide in Canada,

This article is part of The Unremembered, a Globe and Mail investigation into soldiers and veterans who died by suicide after deployment during the Afghanistan mission.

They were sons of bankers, miners and infanteers. They were strongmen and endurance runners. They were husbands and fathers who took their children camping and taught them how to play shinny on backyard rinks.

All 31 were dedicated Canadian soldiers and airmen who served on the perilous Afghanistan mission. They all came home. All ended their lives.

Most were haunted by the things they saw and did in Afghanistan, their families told The Globe and Mail. Many asked the military for help, but in several cases, their medical assessments and treatment were delayed, even as their post-traumatic stress, depression and sleeplessness worsened.

I believe there are issues with former peacekeepers; I’m thinking in particular of those who served in the Balkans and Rwanda, although I’m other certain missions could also be mentioned.

I grew up in a house with someone who had PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome)—my father, a WWII veteran. It was difficult; he was difficult.  Only many years later did I realize what an extraordinary effort it must have taken for him to establish a family and relationships, go to work day in and day out, fight a battle with the bottle in his 40s, and come through the other side when he was in 70s, shortly before he died.

I once read this description of the process we all have to go through when soldiers return (the following is paraphrased),

There are two jobs to be accomplished. We have to forgive them (the soldiers) for what they’ve done and then, they have to forgive us for asking them to do it.

If I find anything about how to encourage the Canadian military to provide better support other than contacting your Member of Parliament, I will add it to this post.

One final remembrance of things past. Leonard Cohen died on Nov. 10, 2016. This Oct. 17, 2016 article by David Remnick seems quite timely (h/t Lainey Gossip Nov. 11, 2016 intro),

… Even before he had much of an audience, he had a distinct idea of the audience he wanted. In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

I find it peculiarly appropriate to apply the description to soldiers.

Finally, here’s the song everyone has been playing in tribute to Cohen. This cover features a performance by the sublime K D Lang,

In Memoriam.

Protecting soldiers from biological and chemical agents with a ‘second skin’ made of carbon nanotubes

There are lots of ‘second skins’ which promise to protect against various chemical and biological agents, the big plus for this ‘skin’ from the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is breathability. From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

This material is the first key component of futuristic smart uniforms that also will respond to and protect from environmental chemical hazards. The research appears in the July 27 [2016] edition of the journal, , Advanced Materials (“Carbon Nanotubes: Ultrabreathable and Protective Membranes with Sub-5 nm Carbon Nanotube Pores”).

An Aug. 3, 2016 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further (Note: Links have been removed),

High breathability is a critical requirement for protective clothing to prevent heat-stress and exhaustion when military personnel are engaged in missions in contaminated environments. Current protective military uniforms are based on heavyweight full-barrier protection or permeable adsorptive protective garments that cannot meet the critical demand of simultaneous high comfort and protection, and provide a passive rather than active response to an environmental threat.

The LLNL team fabricated flexible polymeric membranes with aligned carbon nanotube (CNT) channels as moisture conductive pores. The size of these pores (less than 5 nanometers, nm) is 5,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair [if 1 nm is 1/100,000 or 1/60,000 of a human hair {the two most commonly used measurements} then wouldn’t 5 nm be between 1/20,000 or1/15,000 of a human hair?] .

“We demonstrated that these membranes provide rates of water vapor transport that surpass those of commercial breathable fabrics like GoreTex, even though the CNT pores are only a few nanometers wide,” said Ngoc Bui, the lead author of the paper.

To provide high breathability, the new composite material takes advantage of the unique transport properties of carbon nanotube pores. By quantifying the membrane permeability to water vapor, the team found for the first time that, when a concentration gradient is used as a driving force, CNT nanochannels can sustain gas-transport rates exceeding that of a well-known diffusion theory by more than one order of magnitude.

These membranes also provide protection from biological agents due to their very small pore size — less than 5 nanometers (nm) wide. Biological threats like bacteria or viruses are much larger and typically more than 10-nm in size. Performed tests demonstrated that the CNT membranes repelled Dengue virus from aqueous solutions during filtration tests. This confirms that LLNL-developed CNT membranes provide effective protection from biological threats by size exclusion rather than by merely preventing wetting.

Furthermore, the results show that CNT pores combine high breathability and bio-protection in a single functional material.

However, chemical agents are much smaller in size and require the membrane pores to be able to react to block the threat. To encode the membrane with a smart and dynamic response to small chemical hazards, LLNL scientists and collaborators are surface modifying these prototype carbon nanotube membranes with chemical-threat-responsive functional groups. These functional groups will sense and block the threat like gatekeepers on the pore entrance. A second response scheme also is in development — similar to how living skin peels off when challenged with dangerous external factors. The fabric will exfoliate upon reaction with the chemical agent.

“The material will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment,” said Kuang Jen Wu, leader of LLNL’s Biosecurity & Biosciences Group. “In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents such as sulfur mustard (blister agent), GD and VX nerve agents, toxins such as staphylococcal enterotoxin and biological spores such as anthrax.”

Current work is directed toward designing this multifunctional material to undergo a rapid transition from the breathable state to the protective state.

“These responsive membranes are expected to be particularly effective in mitigating a physiological burden because a less breathable but protective state can be actuated locally and only when needed,” said Francesco Fornasiero, LLNL’s principal investigator of the project.

The new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years.

“The goal of this science and technology program is to develop a focused, innovative technological solution for future chemical biological defense protective clothing,” said Tracee Whitfield, the DTRA [US Defense Threat Reduction Agency] science and technology manager for the Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program. “Swatch-level evaluations will occur in early 2018 to demonstrate the concept of ‘second skin,’ a major milestone that is a key step in the maturation of this technology.”

The researchers have prepared a video describing their work,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ultrabreathable and Protective Membranes with Sub-5 nm Carbon Nanotube Pores by Ngoc Bui, Eric R. Meshot, Sangil Kim, José Peña, Phillip W. Gibson, Kuang Jen Wu, and Francesco Fornasiero. Advanced Materials Volume 28, Issue 28, pages 5871–5877, July 27, 2016 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201600740 Version of Record online: 9 MAY 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Enzyme-based sustainable sensing devices

This story about a sustainable sensing device involves sweat. A July 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes the sweaty situation,

It may be clammy and inconvenient, but human sweat has at least one positive characteristic — it can give insight to what’s happening inside your body. A new study published in the ECS [Electrochemical Society] Journal of Solid State Science and Technology aims to take advantage of sweat’s trove of medical information through the development of a sustainable, wearable sensor to detect lactate levels in your perspiration.

Caption: Depiction of patch sensor via CFDRC. Credit: Sergio Omar Garcia/CFDRC

Caption: Depiction of patch sensor via CFDRC. Credit: Sergio Omar Garcia/CFDRC

The patch in that image doesn’t seem all that wearable but presumably there will be some changes made. A July 28, 2016 Electrochemical Society news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the technology,

“When the human body undergoes strenuous exercise, there’s a point at which aerobic muscle function becomes anaerobic muscle function,” says Jenny Ulyanova, CFD Research Corporation (CFDRC) researcher and co-author of the paper. “At that point, lactate is produce at a faster rate than it is being consumed. When that happens, knowing what those levels are can be an indicator of potentially problematic conditions like muscle fatigue, stress, and dehydration.”

Utilizing green technology

Using sweat to track changes in the body is not a new concept. While there have been many developments in recent years to sense changes in the concentrations of the components of sweat, no purely biological green technology has been used for these devices. The team of CFDRC researchers, in collaboration with the University of New Mexico, developed an enzyme-based sensor powered by a biofuel cell – providing a safe, renewable power source.

Biofuel cells have become a promising technology in the field of energy storage, but still face many issues related to short active lifetimes, low power densities, and low efficiency levels. However, they have several attractive points, including their ability to use renewable fuels like glucose and implement affordable, renewable catalysts.

“The biofuel cell works in this particular case because the sensor is a low-power device,” Ulyanova says. “They’re very good at having high energy densities, but power densities are still a work in progress. But for low-power applications like this particular sensor, it works very well.”

In their research, entitled “Wearable Sensor System Powered by a Biofuel Cell for Detection of Lactate Levels in Sweat,” the team powered the biofuel cells with a fuel based on glucose. This same enzymatic technology, where the enzymes oxidize the fuel and generate energy, is used at the working electrode of the sensor which allows for the detection of lactate in your sweat.

Targeting lactate

While the use of the biofuel cell is a novel aspect of this work, what sets it apart from similar developments in the field is the use of electrochemical processes to very accurately detect a specific compound in a very complex medium like sweat.

“We’re doing it electrochemically, so we’re looking at applying a constant load to the sensor and generating a current response,” Ulyanova says, “which is directly proportional to the concentration of our target analyte.”

Practical applications

Originally, the sensor was developed to help detect and predict conditions related to lactate levels (i.e. fatigue and dehydration) for military personnel.

“The sensor was designed for a soldier in training at boot camp,” says Sergio Omar Garcia, CFDRC researcher and co-author of the paper, “but it could be applied to people that are active and anyone participating in strenuous activity.”

As for commercial applications, the researchers believe the device could be used as a training aid to monitor lactate changes in the same way that athletes use heart rate monitors to see how their heart rate changes during exercise.

On-body testing

The team is currently working to redesign the physical appearance of the patch to move from laboratory research to on-body tests. Once the scientists optimize how the sensor adheres to the skin, its sweat sample delivery/removal, and the systems electronic components, volunteers will test its capabilities while exercising.

“We had actually talked about this idea to some local high school football coaches,” Ulyanova says, “and they seem to really like it and are willing to put forth the use of their players to beta test the idea.”

After initial data is gathered, the team will be able to work with other groups to interpret the data and relate it to the physical condition of the person. With this, predictive models could be built to potentially help prevent conditions related to individual overexertion.

Future plans for the device include implementing wireless transmission of results and the development of a suite of sensors (a hybrid sensor) that can detect various other biomolecules, indicative of physical or physiological stressors.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Wearable Sensor System Powered by a Biofuel Cell for Detection of Lactate Levels in Sweat by S. O. Garcia, Y. V. Ulyanova, R. Figueroa-Teran, K. H. Bhatt, S. Singhal and P. Atanassov. ECS J. Solid State Sci. Technol. 2016 volume 5, issue 8, M3075-M3081 doi: 10.1149/2.0131608jss

This paper is behind a paywall.

Robots, Dallas (US), ethics, and killing

I’ve waited a while before posting this piece in the hope that the situation would calm. Sadly, it took longer than hoped as there was an additional shooting incident of police officers in Baton Rouge on July 17, 2016. There’s more about that shooting in a July 18, 2016 news posting by Steve Visser for CNN.)

Finally: Robots, Dallas, ethics, and killing: In the wake of the Thursday, July 7, 2016 shooting in Dallas (Texas, US) and subsequent use of a robot armed with a bomb to kill  the suspect, a discussion about ethics has been raised.

This discussion comes at a difficult period. In the same week as the targeted shooting of white police officers in Dallas, two African-American males were shot and killed in two apparently unprovoked shootings by police. The victims were Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 and, Philando Castile in Minnesota on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (There’s more detail about the shootings prior to Dallas in a July 7, 2016 news item on CNN.) The suspect in Dallas, Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old African-American male had served in the US Army Reserve and been deployed in Afghanistan (there’s more in a July 9, 2016 news item by Emily Shapiro, Julia Jacobo, and Stephanie Wash for abcnews.go.com). All of this has taken place within the context of a movement started in 2013 in the US, Black Lives Matter.

Getting back to robots, most of the material I’ve seen about ‘killing or killer’ robots has so far involved industrial accidents (very few to date) and ethical issues for self-driven cars (see a May 31, 2016 posting by Noah J. Goodall on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Spectrum website).

The incident in Dallas is apparently the first time a US police organization has used a robot as a bomb, although it has been an occasional practice by US Armed Forces in combat situations. Rob Lever in a July 8, 2016 Agence France-Presse piece on phys.org focuses on the technology aspect,

The “bomb robot” killing of a suspected Dallas shooter may be the first lethal use of an automated device by American police, and underscores growing role of technology in law enforcement.

Regardless of the methods in Dallas, the use of robots is expected to grow, to handle potentially dangerous missions in law enforcement and the military.


Researchers at Florida International University meanwhile have been working on a TeleBot that would allow disabled police officers to control a humanoid robot.

The robot, described in some reports as similar to the “RoboCop” in films from 1987 and 2014, was designed “to look intimidating and authoritative enough for citizens to obey the commands,” but with a “friendly appearance” that makes it “approachable to citizens of all ages,” according to a research paper.

Robot developers downplay the potential for the use of automated lethal force by the devices, but some analysts say debate on this is needed, both for policing and the military.

A July 9, 2016 Associated Press piece by Michael Liedtke and Bree Fowler on phys.org focuses more closely on ethical issues raised by the Dallas incident,

When Dallas police used a bomb-carrying robot to kill a sniper, they also kicked off an ethical debate about technology’s use as a crime-fighting weapon.

The strategy opens a new chapter in the escalating use of remote and semi-autonomous devices to fight crime and protect lives. It also raises new questions over when it’s appropriate to dispatch a robot to kill dangerous suspects instead of continuing to negotiate their surrender.

“If lethally equipped robots can be used in this situation, when else can they be used?” says Elizabeth Joh, a University of California at Davis law professor who has followed U.S. law enforcement’s use of technology. “Extreme emergencies shouldn’t define the scope of more ordinary situations where police may want to use robots that are capable of harm.”

In approaching the question about the ethics, Mike Masnick’s July 8, 2016 posting on Techdirt provides a surprisingly sympathetic reading for the Dallas Police Department’s actions, as well as, asking some provocative questions about how robots might be better employed by police organizations (Note: Links have been removed),

The Dallas Police have a long history of engaging in community policing designed to de-escalate situations, rather than encourage antagonism between police and the community, have been handling all of this with astounding restraint, frankly. Many other police departments would be lashing out, and yet the Dallas Police Dept, while obviously grieving for a horrible situation, appear to be handling this tragic situation professionally. And it appears that they did everything they could in a reasonable manner. They first tried to negotiate with Johnson, but after that failed and they feared more lives would be lost, they went with the robot + bomb option. And, obviously, considering he had already shot many police officers, I don’t think anyone would question the police justification if they had shot Johnson.

But, still, at the very least, the whole situation raises a lot of questions about the legality of police using a bomb offensively to blow someone up. And, it raises some serious questions about how other police departments might use this kind of technology in the future. The situation here appears to be one where people reasonably concluded that this was the most effective way to stop further bloodshed. And this is a police department with a strong track record of reasonable behavior. But what about other police departments where they don’t have that kind of history? What are the protocols for sending in a robot or drone to kill someone? Are there any rules at all?

Furthermore, it actually makes you wonder, why isn’t there a focus on using robots to de-escalate these situations? What if, instead of buying military surplus bomb robots, there were robots being designed to disarm a shooter, or detain him in a manner that would make it easier for the police to capture him alive? Why should the focus of remote robotic devices be to kill him? This isn’t faulting the Dallas Police Department for its actions last night. But, rather, if we’re going to enter the age of robocop, shouldn’t we be looking for ways to use such robotic devices in a manner that would help capture suspects alive, rather than dead?

Gordon Corera’s July 12, 2016 article on the BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation) news website provides an overview of the use of automation and of ‘killing/killer robots’,

Remote killing is not new in warfare. Technology has always been driven by military application, including allowing killing to be carried out at distance – prior examples might be the introduction of the longbow by the English at Crecy in 1346, then later the Nazi V1 and V2 rockets.

More recently, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones such as the Predator and the Reaper have been used by the US outside of traditional military battlefields.

Since 2009, the official US estimate is that about 2,500 “combatants” have been killed in 473 strikes, along with perhaps more than 100 non-combatants. Critics dispute those figures as being too low.

Back in 2008, I visited the Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert, where drones are flown from.

During our visit, the British pilots from the RAF deployed their weapons for the first time.

One of the pilots visibly bristled when I asked him if it ever felt like playing a video game – a question that many ask.

The military uses encrypted channels to control its ordnance disposal robots, but – as any hacker will tell you – there is almost always a flaw somewhere that a determined opponent can find and exploit.

We have already seen cars being taken control of remotely while people are driving them, and the nightmare of the future might be someone taking control of a robot and sending a weapon in the wrong direction.

The military is at the cutting edge of developing robotics, but domestic policing is also a different context in which greater separation from the community being policed risks compounding problems.

The balance between risks and benefits of robots, remote control and automation remain unclear.

But Dallas suggests that the future may be creeping up on us faster than we can debate it.

The excerpts here do not do justice to the articles, if you’re interested in this topic and have the time, I encourage you to read all the articles cited here in their entirety.

*(ETA: July 25, 2016 at 1405 hours PDT: There is a July 25, 2016 essay by Carrie Sheffield for Salon.com which may provide some insight into the Black Lives matter movement and some of the generational issues within the US African-American community as revealed by the movement.)*

Wireless, wearable carbon nanotube-based gas sensors for soldiers

Researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are hoping to make wireless, toxic gas detectors the size of badges. From a June 30, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

MIT researchers have developed low-cost chemical sensors, made from chemically altered carbon nanotubes, that enable smartphones or other wireless devices to detect trace amounts of toxic gases.

Using the sensors, the researchers hope to design lightweight, inexpensive radio-frequency identification (RFID) badges to be used for personal safety and security. Such badges could be worn by soldiers on the battlefield to rapidly detect the presence of chemical weapons — such as nerve gas or choking agents — and by people who work around hazardous chemicals prone to leakage.

A June 30, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the technology further,

“Soldiers have all this extra equipment that ends up weighing way too much and they can’t sustain it,” says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry and lead author on a paper describing the sensors that was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. “We have something that would weigh less than a credit card. And [soldiers] already have wireless technologies with them, so it’s something that can be readily integrated into a soldier’s uniform that can give them a protective capacity.”

The sensor is a circuit loaded with carbon nanotubes, which are normally highly conductive but have been wrapped in an insulating material that keeps them in a highly resistive state. When exposed to certain toxic gases, the insulating material breaks apart, and the nanotubes become significantly more conductive. This sends a signal that’s readable by a smartphone with near-field communication (NFC) technology, which allows devices to transmit data over short distances.

The sensors are sensitive enough to detect less than 10 parts per million of target toxic gases in about five seconds. “We are matching what you could do with benchtop laboratory equipment, such as gas chromatographs and spectrometers, that is far more expensive and requires skilled operators to use,” Swager says.

Moreover, the sensors each cost about a nickel to make; roughly 4 million can be made from about 1 gram of the carbon nanotube materials. “You really can’t make anything cheaper,” Swager says. “That’s a way of getting distributed sensing into many people’s hands.”

The paper’s other co-authors are from Swager’s lab: Shinsuke Ishihara, a postdoc who is also a member of the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics at the National Institute for Materials Science, in Japan; and PhD students Joseph Azzarelli and Markrete Krikorian.

Wrapping nanotubes

In recent years, Swager’s lab has developed other inexpensive, wireless sensors, called chemiresistors, that have detected spoiled meat and the ripeness of fruit, among other things [go to the end of this post for links to previous posts about Swager’s work]. All are designed similarly, with carbon nanotubes that are chemically modified, so their ability to carry an electric current changes when exposed to a target chemical.

This time, the researchers designed sensors highly sensitive to “electrophilic,” or electron-loving, chemical substances, which are often toxic and used for chemical weapons.

To do so, they created a new type of metallo-supramolecular polymer, a material made of metals binding to polymer chains. The polymer acts as an insulation, wrapping around each of the sensor’s tens of thousands of single-walled carbon nanotubes, separating them and keeping them highly resistant to electricity. But electrophilic substances trigger the polymer to disassemble, allowing the carbon nanotubes to once again come together, which leads to an increase in conductivity.

In their study, the researchers drop-cast the nanotube/polymer material onto gold electrodes, and exposed the electrodes to diethyl chlorophosphate, a skin irritant and reactive simulant of nerve gas. Using a device that measures electric current, they observed a 2,000 percent increase in electrical conductivity after five seconds of exposure. Similar conductivity increases were observed for trace amounts of numerous other electrophilic substances, such as thionyl chloride (SOCl2), a reactive simulant in choking agents. Conductivity was significantly lower in response to common volatile organic compounds, and exposure to most nontarget chemicals actually increased resistivity.

Creating the polymer was a delicate balancing act but critical to the design, Swager says. As a polymer, the material needs to hold the carbon nanotubes apart. But as it disassembles, its individual monomers need to interact more weakly, letting the nanotubes regroup. “We hit this sweet spot where it only works when it’s all hooked together,” Swager says.

Resistance is readable

To build their wireless system, the researchers created an NFC tag that turns on when its electrical resistance dips below a certain threshold.

Smartphones send out short pulses of electromagnetic fields that resonate with an NFC tag at radio frequency, inducing an electric current, which relays information to the phone. But smartphones can’t resonate with tags that have a resistance higher than 1 ohm.

The researchers applied their nanotube/polymer material to the NFC tag’s antenna. When exposed to 10 parts per million of SOCl2 for five seconds, the material’s resistance dropped to the point that the smartphone could ping the tag. Basically, it’s an “on/off indicator” to determine if toxic gas is present, Swager says.

According to the researchers, such a wireless system could be used to detect leaks in Li-SOCl2 (lithium thionyl chloride) batteries, which are used in medical instruments, fire alarms, and military systems.

The next step, Swager says, is to test the sensors on live chemical agents, outside of the lab, which are more dispersed and harder to detect, especially at trace levels. In the future, there’s also hope for developing a mobile app that could make more sophisticated measurements of the signal strength of an NFC tag: Differences in the signal will mean higher or lower concentrations of a toxic gas. “But creating new cell phone apps is a little beyond us right now,” Swager says. “We’re chemists.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ultratrace Detection of Toxic Chemicals: Triggered Disassembly of Supramolecular Nanotube Wrappers by Shinsuke Ishihara, Joseph M. Azzarelli, Markrete Krikorian, and Timothy M. Swager. J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jacs.6b03869 Publication Date (Web): June 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here are links to other posts about Swager’s work featured here previously:

Carbon nanotubes sense spoiled food (April 23, 2015 post)

Smart suits for US soldiers—an update of sorts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Feb. 25, 2014 post)

Come, see my etchings … they detect poison gases (Oct. 9, 2012 post)

Soldiers sniff overripe fruit (May 1, 2012 post)

Beating tactical experts in combat simulation—AI with the processing power of a Raspberry Pi

It looks like one day combat may come down to who has the best artificial intelligence (AI) if a June 27, 2016 University of Cincinnati news release (also on EurekAlert) by M. B. Reilly is to be believed (Note: Links have been removed),

Artificial intelligence (AI) developed by a University of Cincinnati doctoral graduate was recently assessed by subject-matter expert and retired United States Air Force Colonel Gene Lee — who holds extensive aerial combat experience as an instructor and Air Battle Manager with considerable fighter aircraft expertise — in a high-fidelity air combat simulator.

The artificial intelligence, dubbed ALPHA, was the victor in that simulated scenario, and according to Lee, is “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible AI I’ve seen to date.”

Details on ALPHA – a significant breakthrough in the application of what’s called genetic-fuzzy systems are published in the most-recent issue of the Journal of Defense Management, as this application is specifically designed for use with Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in simulated air-combat missions for research purposes.

The tools used to create ALPHA as well as the ALPHA project have been developed by Psibernetix, Inc., recently founded by UC College of Engineering and Applied Science 2015 doctoral graduate Nick Ernest, now president and CEO of the firm; as well as David Carroll, programming lead, Psibernetix, Inc.; with supporting technologies and research from Gene Lee; Kelly Cohen, UC aerospace professor; Tim Arnett, UC aerospace doctoral student; and Air Force Research Laboratory sponsors.

The news release goes on to provide a overview of ALPHA’s air combat fighting and strategy skills,

ALPHA is currently viewed as a research tool for manned and unmanned teaming in a simulation environment. In its earliest iterations, ALPHA consistently outperformed a baseline computer program previously used by the Air Force Research Lab for research.  In other words, it defeated other AI opponents.

In fact, it was only after early iterations of ALPHA bested other computer program opponents that Lee then took to manual controls against a more mature version of ALPHA last October. Not only was Lee not able to score a kill against ALPHA after repeated attempts, he was shot out of the air every time during protracted engagements in the simulator.

Since that first human vs. ALPHA encounter in the simulator, this AI has repeatedly bested other experts as well, and is even able to win out against these human experts when its (the ALPHA-controlled) aircraft are deliberately handicapped in terms of speed, turning, missile capability and sensors.

Lee, who has been flying in simulators against AI opponents since the early 1980s, said of that first encounter against ALPHA, “I was surprised at how aware and reactive it was. It seemed to be aware of my intentions and reacting instantly to my changes in flight and my missile deployment. It knew how to defeat the shot I was taking. It moved instantly between defensive and offensive actions as needed.”

He added that with most AIs, “an experienced pilot can beat up on it (the AI) if you know what you’re doing. Sure, you might have gotten shot down once in a while by an AI program when you, as a pilot, were trying something new, but, until now, an AI opponent simply could not keep up with anything like the real pressure and pace of combat-like scenarios.”

But, now, it’s been Lee, who has trained with thousands of U.S. Air Force pilots, flown in several fighter aircraft and graduated from the U.S. Fighter Weapons School (the equivalent of earning an advanced degree in air combat tactics and strategy), as well as other pilots who have been feeling pressured by ALPHA.

And, anymore [sic], when Lee flies against ALPHA in hours-long sessions that mimic real missions, “I go home feeling washed out. I’m tired, drained and mentally exhausted. This may be artificial intelligence, but it represents a real challenge.”

New goals have been set for ALPHA according to the news release,

Explained Ernest, “ALPHA is already a deadly opponent to face in these simulated environments. The goal is to continue developing ALPHA, to push and extend its capabilities, and perform additional testing against other trained pilots. Fidelity also needs to be increased, which will come in the form of even more realistic aerodynamic and sensor models. ALPHA is fully able to accommodate these additions, and we at Psibernetix look forward to continuing development.”

In the long term, teaming artificial intelligence with U.S. air capabilities will represent a revolutionary leap. Air combat as it is performed today by human pilots is a highly dynamic application of aerospace physics, skill, art, and intuition to maneuver a fighter aircraft and missiles against adversaries, all moving at very high speeds. After all, today’s fighters close in on each other at speeds in excess of 1,500 miles per hour while flying at altitudes above 40,000 feet. Microseconds matter, and the cost for a mistake is very high.

Eventually, ALPHA aims to lessen the likelihood of mistakes since its operations already occur significantly faster than do those of other language-based consumer product programming. In fact, ALPHA can take in the entirety of sensor data, organize it, create a complete mapping of a combat scenario and make or change combat decisions for a flight of four fighter aircraft in less than a millisecond. Basically, the AI is so fast that it could consider and coordinate the best tactical plan and precise responses, within a dynamic environment, over 250 times faster than ALPHA’s human opponents could blink.

So it’s likely that future air combat, requiring reaction times that surpass human capabilities, will integrate AI wingmen – Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) – capable of performing air combat and teamed with manned aircraft wherein an onboard battle management system would be able to process situational awareness, determine reactions, select tactics, manage weapons use and more. So, AI like ALPHA could simultaneously evade dozens of hostile missiles, take accurate shots at multiple targets, coordinate actions of squad mates, and record and learn from observations of enemy tactics and capabilities.

UC’s Cohen added, “ALPHA would be an extremely easy AI to cooperate with and have as a teammate. ALPHA could continuously determine the optimal ways to perform tasks commanded by its manned wingman, as well as provide tactical and situational advice to the rest of its flight.”

Happily, insight is provided into the technical aspects (from the news release),

It would normally be expected that an artificial intelligence with the learning and performance capabilities of ALPHA, applicable to incredibly complex problems, would require a super computer in order to operate.

However, ALPHA and its algorithms require no more than the computing power available in a low-budget PC in order to run in real time and quickly react and respond to uncertainty and random events or scenarios.

According to a lead engineer for autonomy at AFRL, “ALPHA shows incredible potential, with a combination of high performance and low computational cost that is a critical enabling capability for complex coordinated operations by teams of unmanned aircraft.”

Ernest began working with UC engineering faculty member Cohen to resolve that computing-power challenge about three years ago while a doctoral student. (Ernest also earned his UC undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics in 2011 and his UC master’s, also in aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, in 2012.)

They tackled the problem using language-based control (vs. numeric based) and using what’s called a “Genetic Fuzzy Tree” (GFT) system, a subtype of what’s known as fuzzy logic algorithms.

States UC’s Cohen, “Genetic fuzzy systems have been shown to have high performance, and a problem with four or five inputs can be solved handily. However, boost that to a hundred inputs, and no computing system on planet Earth could currently solve the processing challenge involved – unless that challenge and all those inputs are broken down into a cascade of sub decisions.”

That’s where the Genetic Fuzzy Tree system and Cohen and Ernest’s years’ worth of work come in.

According to Ernest, “The easiest way I can describe the Genetic Fuzzy Tree system is that it’s more like how humans approach problems.  Take for example a football receiver evaluating how to adjust what he does based upon the cornerback covering him. The receiver doesn’t think to himself: ‘During this season, this cornerback covering me has had three interceptions, 12 average return yards after interceptions, two forced fumbles, a 4.35 second 40-yard dash, 73 tackles, 14 assisted tackles, only one pass interference, and five passes defended, is 28 years old, and it’s currently 12 minutes into the third quarter, and he has seen exactly 8 minutes and 25.3 seconds of playtime.’”

That receiver – rather than standing still on the line of scrimmage before the play trying to remember all of the different specific statistics and what they mean individually and combined to how he should change his performance – would just consider the cornerback as ‘really good.’

The cornerback’s historic capability wouldn’t be the only variable. Specifically, his relative height and relative speed should likely be considered as well. So, the receiver’s control decision might be as fast and simple as: ‘This cornerback is really good, a lot taller than me, but I am faster.’

At the very basic level, that’s the concept involved in terms of the distributed computing power that’s the foundation of a Genetic Fuzzy Tree system wherein, otherwise, scenarios/decision making would require too high a number of rules if done by a single controller.

Added Ernest, “Only considering the relevant variables for each sub-decision is key for us to complete complex tasks as humans. So, it makes sense to have the AI do the same thing.”

In this case, the programming involved breaking up the complex challenges and problems represented in aerial fighter deployment into many sub-decisions, thereby significantly reducing the required “space” or burden for good solutions. The branches or sub divisions of this decision-making tree consists of high-level tactics, firing, evasion and defensiveness.

That’s the “tree” part of the term “Genetic Fuzzy Tree” system.

Programming that’s language based, genetic and generational

Most AI programming uses numeric-based control and provides very precise parameters for operations. In other words, there’s not a lot of leeway for any improvement or contextual decision making on the part of the programming.

The AI algorithms that Ernest and his team ultimately developed are language based, with if/then scenarios and rules able to encompass hundreds to thousands of variables. This language-based control or fuzzy logic, while much less about complex mathematics, can be verified and validated.

Another benefit of this linguistic control is the ease in which expert knowledge can be imparted to the system. For instance, Lee worked with Psibernetix to provide tactical and maneuverability advice which was directly plugged in to ALPHA. (That “plugging in” occurs via inputs into a fuzzy logic controller. Those inputs consist of defined terms, e.g., close vs. far in distance to a target; if/then rules related to the terms; and inputs of other rules or specifications.)

Finally, the ALPHA programming is generational. It can be improved from one generation to the next, from one version to the next. In fact, the current version of ALPHA is only that – the current version. Subsequent versions are expected to perform significantly better.

Again, from UC’s Cohen, “In a lot of ways, it’s no different than when air combat began in W.W. I. At first, there were a whole bunch of pilots. Those who survived to the end of the war were the aces. Only in this case, we’re talking about code.”

To reach its current performance level, ALPHA’s training has occurred on a $500 consumer-grade PC. This training process started with numerous and random versions of ALPHA. These automatically generated versions of ALPHA proved themselves against a manually tuned version of ALPHA. The successful strings of code are then “bred” with each other, favoring the stronger, or highest performance versions. In other words, only the best-performing code is used in subsequent generations. Eventually, one version of ALPHA rises to the top in terms of performance, and that’s the one that is utilized.

This is the “genetic” part of the “Genetic Fuzzy Tree” system.

Said Cohen, “All of these aspects are combined, the tree cascade, the language-based programming and the generations. In terms of emulating human reasoning, I feel this is to unmanned aerial vehicles what the IBM/Deep Blue vs. Kasparov was to chess.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Genetic Fuzzy based Artificial Intelligence for Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle Control in Simulated Air Combat Missions by Nicholas Ernest, David Carroll, Corey Schumacher, Matthew Clark, Kelly Cohen, and Gene Lee. J Def Manag [Journal of Defense Management]  6:144. doi:10.4172/2167-0374.1000144 Published: March 22, 2016

This is an open access paper.

Segue

The University of Cincinnati’s president, Santa Ono, recently accepted a job as president of the University of British Columbia (UBC), which is located in the region where I live. Nassif Ghoussoub, professor of mathematics at UBC, writes about Ono and his new appointment in a June 13, 2016 posting on his blog (Note: A link has been removed),

By the time you read this, UBC communications will already have issued the mandatory press release [the official announcement was made June 13, 2016] describing Santa Ono’s numerous qualifications for the job, including that he is a Canuck in the US, born in Vancouver, McGill PhD, a highly accomplished medical researcher, who is the President of the University of Cincinnati.

So, I shall focus here on what UBC communications may not be enclined [sic] to tell you, yet may be quite consequential for UBC’s future direction. After all, life experiences, gender, race, class, and character are what shape leadership.

President Ono seems to have had battles with mental illness, and have been courageous enough to deal with it and to publicly disclose it –as recently as May 24 [2016]– so as to destigmatize struggles that many people go through. It is interesting to note the two events that led the president to have suicidal thoughts: …

The post is well worth reading if you have any interest in Ono, UBC, and/or insight into some of the struggles even some of the most accomplished academics can encounter.

Nanotechnology Molecular Tagging for sniffing out explosives

A nifty technology for sniffing out explosives is described in a June 22, 2016 news item in Government Security News magazine. I do think they might have eased up on the Egypt Air disaster reference and the implication that it might have been avoided with the use of this technology,

The crash of an Egypt Air Flight 804 recently again raised concerns over whether a vulnerability in pre-flight security has led to another deadly terrorist attacks. Officials haven’t found a cause for the crash yet, but news reports indicate that officials believe either a bomb or fire are what brought the plane down [link included from press release].

Regardless of the cause, the Chief Executive Officer of British-based Ancon Technologies said that the incident shows the compelling need for more versatile and affordable explosive detection technology.

“There are still too many vulnerabilities in transportation systems around the world,” said CEO Dr. Robert Muir. “That’s why our focus has been on developing explosive detection technology that is highly efficient, easily deployable and economically priced.”

A June 21, 2015 Ancon Technologies press release on PR Web, which originated the news item, describes the technology in a little more detail,

Using nanotechnology to scan sensitive vapour readings, Ancon Technologies has developed unique security devices with exception sensitivity to detect explosive chemicals and materials. Called Nanotechnology Molecular Tagging, the technology is used to look for specific molecular markers that are emitted from the chemicals used in explosive compounds. An NMT device can then be programmed to look for these compounds and gauge concentrations.

“The result is unprecedented sensitivity for a device that is portable and versatile,” Dr. Muir said. “The technology is also highly selective, meaning it can distinguish the molecules is testing for against the backdrop of other chemicals and readings in the air.”

If terrorism is responsible for the crash of the Egypt Air flight on route to Cairo from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, the incident further shows the need for heightened screening processes, Muir said. Concerns about air travel’s vulnerabilities to terrorism were further raised in October when a Russian plane flying out of Egypt crashed in what several officials believe was a terrorist bombing.

Both cases show the need for improved security measures in airports around the world, especially those related to early explosive detection, Muir said. CNN reported that the Egypt Air crash would likely generate even more attention to airport security while Egypt has already been investing in new security measures following the October attack.

“An NMT device can bring laboratory-level sensitivity to the airport screening procedure, adding another level of safety in places where it’s needed most,” Muir said. “By being able to detect a compound at concentrations as small as a single molecule, NMT can pinpoint a threat and provide security teams with the early warning they need.”

The NMT device’s sensitivity and accuracy can also help balance another concern with airport security: long waits. Already, the Transportation Security Agency is coming under fire this summer for extended airport security screening lines, reports USA Today.

“An NMT device can produce results from test samples in minutes, meaning screenings can proceed at a reasonable pace without jeopardizing security,” Muir said.

Ancon Technologies has working arrangements with military and security agencies in both the United Kingdom and the United States, Muir said, following a recent round of investments. The company is headquartered in Canterbury, Kent and has an office in the U.S. in Bloomington, Minnesota.

So this is a sensing device and I believe this particular type can also be described as an artificial nose.