Stillwater firm sniffs out land mines

Monday, November 15th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- An Oklahoma company with a nose for detecting land mines has come out on top in a two-year government research project. Nomadics, Inc., a high-tech company based in Stillwater, participated in a study for the U.S. Defense Advance Research Project Agency called the Dog's Nose Project to find a better way to detect land mines.

Nomadics competed with such firms as Rockwell International, Texas Instruments and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a field trial in September at Fort Leonard Hood, Mo. The Nomadics team tested against South African handlers and dogs recently returned from Bosnia and Nicaragua. "For the groups that had sniffer technology, our technology was about a thousand times better," Colin Cumming, founder, president and CEO of Nomadics told the Stillwater News-Press.

Nomadics' device FIDO IV is the fourth prototype land mine detector developed by the firm. During the tests, FIDO's success rate was similar to that of land mine sniffing dogs in its ability to find land mines. "We've proved the concept," said Cumming. "Many people believed the basic concept was flawed, that it was impossible for a machine to tell where these mines were by (detecting) the vapor. We've proven that you can tell."

Cumming said now comes the hard work of producing a device that works equally well under all environmental conditions. The tests showed sniffer dogs and the device both work better in humid weather versus dry weather.

Cumming said he feels a sense of urgency to work out bugs in the device. He said his company will proceed with a wartime urgency versus a peacetime urgency. "In a sense, this is a war," he said. "Every year, hundreds of people are being maimed by these mines. If we're tardy and it takes us, say, five years to develop this technology, in five years that would be some 300,000 additional causalities."

Trained dogs are still the first line of defense in mine detection, said Cumming. However, he said, they hyperventilate after about an hour and become exhausted. "These dogs are precision pieces of equipment and the handlers literally tend to them all day," said Cumming. "Several problems exist with dogs, however, such as quarantines of up to 90 days imposed on the animals by some countries, and the fact that even a good dog can have bad days."

Cumming said because FIDO can be calibrated, the user can tell if the equipment is working properly before entering the field. FIDO works by mimicking a dog's acute olfactory senses. The device utilizes an amplifying polymer developed at MIT. Nomadics has gained exclusive licensing rights to the polymer, which is fluorescent in its normal state.