Thursday, August 03, 2006

Defense bill includes funding for landmine detection bees (8/3/06)
Defense bill includes funding for landmine detection bees

By Peter Cohn, CongressDaily

In an fiscal 2007 Defense appropriations bill of roughly $468 billion, it is easy to overlook a mere $5 million for a new defensive weapons system -- using honey bees to find landmines and other buried explosives.

But if Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and University of Montana researcher Jerry Bromenshenk have their way, a homegrown Montana business consortium could soon be developing and marketing a new tracking system for a variety of military and commercial uses -- all using specially trained bees.

"There's some fascinating research going on out there at Missoula," said Burns, whose push for federal funds might just help him win a tough race for re-election this fall.

Supporters say the relatively small amounts Burns included in the Defense bill pending on the Senate floor could be the sweetener to eventually leverage billions of dollars worth of economic development in his state.

Working with researchers at Montana State University who have been developing a laser tracking system to map where the bees go, as well as native American-owned S&K Electronics, Bromenshenk has been seeking federal funds to put together a prototype to lure private sector investment.

"What the senator is trying to do is help us bridge that 'valley of death' between it being just university research to the point where it's something a little more mature," said Bromenshenk, who has formed a company called Bee Alert Technology Inc.

"The commercial applications are incredible -- it's not just explosives, we can use the bees to find meth[amphetamine] labs, dead bodies and any number of other uses that I can't get into," he said.

The immediate focus is on marketing the idea of using bees to track landmines and help locate improvised explosive devices.

"At first I thought, this has got to be a joke," a Burns aide said. But that skepticism quickly turned into something else several years ago, after seeing the results of tests using honey bees trained by attuning them to the scent of TNT or other explosives -- just as they are attracted to flowers.

"They mostly use dogs to find landmines and unexploded ordnance, but that will endanger both the dog and the dog-handler," the aide noted. "We saw tests where the bees would not only be attracted to the target point, but would be buzzing around the guys who conducted the tests, going after the hands that handled the explosives ... the psychological influence of that could be enormous."

Bromenshenk said he has had discussions with military contractors, although until he can put together a prototype major deals are on hold. One potential investor, he said, is Washington, D.C-based RONCO Consulting Corp., which specializes in worldwide de-mining activities.

"They have 4,000 dog teams working in 30-something countries, but it could take 400 to 500 years to clean known, existing minefields, to say nothing of the mines we don't know are out there" according to a RAND Corp. study, Bromenshenk said. He said bees could be more effective than dogs, reducing the amount of time needed to sweep for mines "10 to 15-fold."

"If we could get even a piece of those 4,000 teams" to contract with his Montana-based group, "that would be a great scenario for Montana's economy." A RONCO official could not be reached for comment.

The problem remains getting money to get the project off the ground and into marketable shape. After an initial period of interest by the Pentagon's Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, backers have found it difficult to drum up much support.

Research into using honey bees to find unexploded ordnance has fallen out of favor at DARPA, which has funded all manner of research ranging from mechanical elephants to a machine that can read human thoughts.

DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said the agency has found that honey bees "have not proved useful" in detecting landmines and other explosives. Despite the lack of enthusiasm, with a nod from Burns, recent DARPA budgets contained honey bee research funds. As late as the fiscal 2005 Defense spending bill, $1.9 million was included.

Burns for the last two years has sought to insert the money directly into the Army's research and development budget, bypassing DARPA. Conferees agreed to include $2.8 million in the fiscal 2006 Defense bill and the Senate has proposed to add another $5 million in the fiscal 2007 version.

Bromenshenk and Burns' aide said Army officials have expressed interest; an Army spokeswoman said the Defense Department had no comment.

But judging from past Pentagon budgets -- and the fact that Burns is up for re-election -- it stands to reason honey bees will have another shot to try to oust their canine rivals as chief landmine-sniffers.

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