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EU-funded research device to ‘sniff out’ hidden immigrants

By LAUREN KUHN

BRUSSELS – In today’s security climate, migration and border control issues are top priorities for European authorities. Border control agencies such as Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, as well as national border control officials, have been overwhelmed by the recent influx of migrants and refugees.

One current research project is trying to make life a bit easier for these officials. SNOOPY, a project funded under the EU’s Research and Innovation programme of Horizon 2020, is a handheld sniffer for concealed people discovery that is being developed by researchers coordinated by the Italian Universita degli Studi di Brescia in conjunction with hardware developers at C-TECH Innovation Ltd, a UK research, technology and innovation organisation. This project is nearing the end of its life-cycle, having started in early 2014 and set to end at the beginning of 2017, with an overall budget of EUR 2.6 million.

In an interview with SECURITY EUROPE, Giorgio Sberveglieri, the project’s lead and a professor at the University of Brescia, talked about the project’s two main goals.

The first is to develop a sensor to detect the presence of human sweat. According to Sberveglieri work has progressed well on this front, and they are close to completing this portion of the project. The second goal is to develop a user-friendly software interface system for the sensor’s portable unit.

The main challenge in the development of this sensor has been due to the complexity of sweat; there is no one standard molecule for human sweat, so “in order to calibrate the sensor, we have to use different artificial sweat compounds,” he said. As the sensor works by collecting air samples and analysing them for the presence of sweat molecules, it is particularly important that all sweat compounds be accounted for in the calibration process.

Another challenge the project has faced includes increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. The way it currently works, it can take up to ten minutes to get a sufficient concentration of molecules to detect a human’s presence. The team is therefore working to increase the air intake rate so that the sensor will work faster.

During the testing phase one somewhat unexpected roadblock encountered was the discovery that several scents, such as coffee and curry act as “interfering compounds”; that is, when present, these compounds obscure the odour of sweat, something that similarly makes it difficult for sniffer dogs to detect humans in these situations. Sberveglieri is confident, however, that his team is making progress in distinguishing these compounds from sweat compounds and should be able to overcome this obstacle.

Asked if his new system was intended to replace sniffer dogs at border control points, Sberveglieri clarified that this system “is not to replace dogs, but to work in parallel with dogs”. He believes that dogs’ ability to detect humans will remain unparalleled, and that his sensor is intended to complement their work by being able to work twenty-four hours a day without requiring the necessary breaks that a working canine does.

In fact, his team has a meeting on 15 December 2016 in Athens to benchmark his sensor against the sniffer dogs used by KEMEA, the security studies arm of the Greek government. Sberveglieri anticipates that the benchmarking will be a success and that KEMEA will want to purchase this sensor for use by their border control agencies.

In addition to KEMEA, the research team has an upcoming meeting with Frontex here in the next couple of months to present their results, again with the aim of Frontex purchasing the final product.

Moving forward, Sberveglieri revealed that the largest remaining challenge lies in the second goal: the designing of the software-interface system. While they are partnering with C-TECH to develop the hardware that will collect the air and house the sensor, they have as yet to find a software developer and are hoping for additional funding from Frontex, following their meeting, to cover the costs. Their goal is for the whole system to be handheld, battery-operated, and weigh around one kilogram for easy use.

When asked about other possible applications of the device, Sberveglieri speculated that it could be used in disaster-recovery to find people trapped in urban areas as a result of earthquakes or other natural disasters, and in cases of suspected human trafficking.

     THE UPSHOT: While devices such as this one will make life easier for border control officials attempting to stop human trafficking or the uncontrolled flow of migrants across the EU’s borders, a more comprehensive solution is needed to Europe’s migration and refugee crisis.
     Simply being able to stop and detect people at the borders is not sufficient. Devices like SNOOPY only help in cases where the crossings are controlled, and it will never be possible to control all parts of Europe’s borders. But SNOOPY is a good step forward if it is carried into wider EU research or policy goals.

About Brooks Tigner

Brooks Tigner is editor & chief policy analyst at SECURITY EUROPE. He can be reached at: bt@securityeurope.info

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