Scent of a Survivor: Sensors Locate Disaster Victims by Molecular Odor

Does the tech breakthrough mean the end of search and rescue dogs?

Will sensors replace search and rescue dogs like german shepherds? (Photo: Reuters/Mahmud Turkin)
Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Remember the floppy-eared, homeless Labrador-turned-search-and-rescue-dog that was sent to Japan to sniff for survivors of the country’s earthquake and tsunami?

Her name was Pearl and her shelter-to-heroine tale melted the hardest of hearts.

But if a new technological breakthrough ever becomes market-ready, the valiant pooch and her human handler could be searching for a new line of work.

Fast Company is reporting that European scientists have reconfigured commercially available sensors to identify sweat and spit molecules emitted from people buried in disaster rubble.

These sensors, normally used for scientific research, turned out to easily detect the breath, sweat, and urine from volunteers who pretended to be disaster victims trapped in a collapsed building, even while the faux victims were stuck under simulated concrete. The sensors were able to detect carbon dioxide and ammonia, along with compounds such as acetone and isoprene, through air flumes.

The technology is most likely years away from seeing the light of day, but it could be the demise of the search and rescue dog business model, says Paul Thomas, co-author of the research paper that unveiled the findings.

The reason?

Money.

Emergency first responders carrying breath-and-sweat detectors would be a significantly less expensive expenditure for our cash-strapped federal government than a dog, no matter how high his or her hero quotient is.

According to Search and Rescue Dog Foundation, search and rescue dogs are trained for an average of three years at an eye-opening cost of $10,000 per pooch, before they’re even ready to hit the scene of a disaster.

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