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The ultimate sting: Bees the buzz in landmine detection

April 28, 1999 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – Forget James Bond and his souped-up BMW. The newest high-tech agent in the world of international security could be a honeybee.

Its mission? To detect landmines.

Its modus operandi? Tiny radio frequency tags.

Technology developed at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is helping to determine if bees pass muster as secret agents in the mission to find millions of landmines scattered worldwide.

Pacific Northwest engineers have modified commercially available radio-frequency tags, which store information and can be used to track items such as clothing, to serve as high-tech "backpacks" for bees. Pacific Northwest engineers also have designed special electronics and software for radio-frequency devices that "read" information on the tags. These devices will be mounted to manmade beehives.

Used together, these technologies will track the movement of bees and test their ability to detect minute amounts of explosives. If bees can be trained, they will be a means for locating landmines or unexploded ammunition on firing ranges or old battlefields.

The University of Montana in Missoula is coordinating this project, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense. Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, an entomologist at the university, pooled resources from three federal agencies and three national laboratories to conduct this research.

In a field test this spring, Pacific Northwest engineers and Bromenshenk's research team will tag 50 bees in a controlled experiment. Each tag will store information used to identify a bee and will weigh less than a grain of rice.

The RF tags and readers will allow researchers to track the movements of individual bees. For example, as a bee leaves for a day of pollen hunting, it will fly out of the hive and trigger the reader. The reader scans the tag on each bee, then sends the bee's identification code, direction of flight and the time to a modem. The modem downloads the data to a central computer. This process also will occur when a bee returns to the hive.

Then, a system of analysis tools being developed by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and the Environmental Protection Agency will be installed inside the hives and scan for chemicals found in explosives. Together, the tracking information and the analysis tools could help pinpoint landmine locations.

Researchers also will conduct a second field test to study how far bees travel. This information will allow researchers to determine the greatest distance bees can forage and how long it takes them to reach the mines.

Pacific Northwest engineers developed a first generation of radio-frequency tags in the early 1990s for the garment industry to track inventory. Pacific Northwest engineers are improving the storage and range reading capabilities of the tags for national security applications.

Business inquiries on this or other PNNL technologies should be directed to 1-888-375-PNNL or e-mail: inquiry@pnl.gov.

Tags: National Security

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy. For more information, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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