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Bomb technology on trial to sniff out Covid-19 on planes

State-of-the-art “sniffer” technology is being tested to see if it can smell Covid-19 in planes and then alert airlines.

Technology detecting Covid-19

Airbus, which has a large base in Toulouse, is developing a device using genetically engineered stem cells, originally intended to detect bombs, which set off alarms when they “sniff” Covid-19. It is working with American tech firm Koniku for the technology.

The firm has received approval from US authorities to carry out tests to see how the devices react to changes in the smell of people’s breath or sweat caused by the Covid-19 virus. An Airbus spokesman told Connexion: “A commercial application of the Koniku technology to detect virus infections is several months down the line.”

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Sounding the alarm

Asked if an alarm would go off in the aircraft which passengers could hear, and what the company’s advice would be to airlines if the alarm sounded, he replied that such details would be left to airlines, airports or health authorities.

“The Airbus solution will provide situational awareness on the chemical/explosive (or virus) threat to the appropriate authority, which is responsible for organising the response. Such a response (cancelling flight, performing detailed search, etc) depends on airlines’ and airports’ operational rules and applicable regulations in each country,” he said.


The company intends to bring down the cost of the devices, which look like purple jellyfish, to the point where airlines will be able to install “dozens, or hundreds” of them, and use them either in a communicating network or as stand-alone devices. If they work, the Airbus Covid-19 detection devices, although primarily designed to be used in aircraft, could also be used in other public spaces, such as shops and restaurants.

“The priority for Airbus is to address the protection of air transport: passengers and cargo in aircraft and at airports,” said the spokesman. “Specific adaptations will be made to the device to address the constraints of specific environments: aircraft cabin, airline check-in desk, airport entrances, corridors, etc.”

Genetic engineering is currently banned in France, and Airbus said it was studying whether the detectors would get public acceptance and comply with specific regulations. “The technology uses genetically engineered stem cells, which are sealed in 'micro-wells' and never come into contact with the air, or anything,” said the spokesman. “Obviously, we believe it to be completely safe.”

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Animals help sniff out coronavirus

Meanwhile, experiments in France using fire rescue sniffer dogs have shown the animals can be trained to react to the smell of the sweat of people with Covid-19. Tests conducted with German shepherds at a veterinary school in Maisons-Alfort, Val-de-Marne, show a 95% success rate in sniffing out the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. During the trial, the dogs had to identify the presence of the virus by smelling sweat samples taken from infected individuals.

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