Training bugs to detect smells

Cary-based company trains sensor bugs to sniff out hazards.

Training a bug

On the second floor of a Cary office building behind a sign that suggests high-tech science, you'll find the latest research into Microplitis croceipes, otherwise known as sensor bugs. Cary-based company Bennett Aerospace trains sensor bugs to detect chemical signatures. Much like dogs, they can learn how to spot illegal narcotics, bombs or even bedbugs.

“They use their antennae to pick up chemical signatures of anything they're looking for,” said engineer Michael Rizzoni. “Whether it's food, or some substance they don't like, or anything in their environment.”

The company manufactures containers equipped with a handful of sensor bugs and a vent that sucks in air. If the bug has been trained to detect a certain smell and the fan pulls in that smell, the bugs will crowd around the air vent within seconds.

“The bugs that we're using are very amazing,” says research director Brandon Conover. “They're just as effective and sometimes more effective than dogs at being able to detect what it is they're trained to detect. Anything a dog can be trained to smell, your slippers, the neighbor’s cat, whatever, anything that a dog can smell, these sensor bugs can smell. “

Detecting bedbugs

 Bennett Aerospace is hoping to use the sensor bugs to detect bedbugs.

“Because right now there is no way of detecting if someone has bedbugs or not. The only way you can tell today is if someone starts getting bites on them,” said Conover. “Or they might see a bedbug, but because bedbugs are nocturnal, most people don't even know they're there.” In theory, sensor bugs could be trained to detect any household problem and perhaps even explosives, illegal drugs, even human diseases.

How do they do it?

The company won’t give specific details about how they train the bugs. They did say the use food rewards. “If there's a chemical signature the bugs have been trained to detect, they will gather around this hole we're pumping air through,” said Conover. “And they are thinking oh there's food, because they associate that smell with food that they're given when they're trained. It takes approximately two to three minutes to train a bug to detect a smell. Conover said that within a week one person could train thousands of sensor bugs, and if they had two people they could train 10,000 or more per week.