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 $
But if Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and have their way, a homegrown business consortium could soon be developing and marketing
"There's some fascinating research going on out there at ," 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 , 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
The immediate focus is on marketing the
"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
"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
"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 , backers have found it difficult to drum up much support.
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,
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.