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EU spent millions in « mechanized dogs » to look for hidden migrants

Sun, 05 May 2019 17:33:03 +0000 - (source)

« Dogs have proven to be the most effective methods to detect humans hidden in vehicles« , reports an European Commission document, but they are also quickly tired, and costs a lot. That’s why the EC gave €16M to dozens of public and private bodies in order to develop « mechanized dogs » and « artificial sniffers » to identify all those hidden migrants who try to cross the Schengen borders.

An investigationwritten in june 2015 for The Migrants Files Project, but which had never been published since.

Between 1984 and 2013, the European Commission has spent € 118 billions (.pdf) in research and development programs. With almost € 56 billions of grants, the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7), the EU’s main instrument for funding research in Europe, which ran from 2007-2013, had been the biggest ever funded, with more than 16.000 funding recipients. The objectives were to « promote research to tackle the biggest societal challenges facing Europe and the world« , but also « to create around 174 000 jobs in the short-term and nearly 450 000 jobs and nearly €80 billion in GDP growth over 15 years« .

On those € 56 billions, €1.3 have been dedicated to Security programs, with the goal of « improving the competitiveness of the European security industry and delivering mission-oriented results to reduce security gaps« . FP7 granted 322 security projects, including 23 labelled « Intelligent surveillance and border security« , one of the seven main missions areas in that matter.

Between 2012 and 2013, FP7 launched 9 grants for border checks. One of them was entitled « Innovative, costefficient and reliable technology to detect humans hidden in vehicles/closed compartments« . Its description explained that « profiling and detection dogs have proven to be the most effective methods to detect humans hidden in vehicles« , but also that « such methods are labour-intensive (and) therefore vehicles and containers are not systematically checked for hidden persons » :

« Technology currently used for detecting humans hidden in vehicles at border crossing points or in in-land mobile checkpoints is either too expensive and potentially problematic from a health and safety perspective (X-ray, gamma-ray), unreliable, or difficult to deploy in all border control scenarios (ex. millimetre wave technology, heartbeat detectors, carbon dioxide probes, laser distance measurement, telescopic inspection mirrors/cameras, electromagnetic field detection etc.).

The aim of this research project is to identify and develop a technology that can detect persons hidden in vehicles/closed compartments with the following characteristics:
– fully automated;
– contactless;
– reliable, with acceptable error/false positive rates (best minimum in comparison to dogs/manual searches);
– robust and resistant to different environments and weather conditions;
– suitable for all types of vehicles and containers;
– fast;
– high throughput;
– cost efficient (acquisition and running costs, staffing requirements);
– compliant with European health and safety regulations;
– can be integrated with other technologies to detect dangerous / illicit materials (ideally in a one-for-all gate through which all vehicles/containers are automatically screened).

Such technology is to be deployed in stationary and mobile (portable, easily deployable) environments (at land and sea borders, for in-land checks).

An appropriate strategy, for the validation of the fitness for purpose of the results of the project, should be foreseen in the proposal taking fully into account the responsibilities of thenational border control authorities and the Frontex agency. »

Another presentation (.pdf) of this call for proposal detailed its « Expected impact: Today it is difficult to determine how many illegal migrants use successfully this modus operandi to cross the Schengen borders and arrive to their final destination. The identification of the entry-point into the EU of an illegal immigrant is an essential requirement for the juridical treatment of the case« .

Among the 90 146 FP7 programs, 315 mentions the word « border« , as 37 of the Security projects. Five of them try to respond to the « Innovative, costefficient and reliable technology to detect humans hidden in vehicles/closed compartments » call for proposals : DOGGIES, HANDHOLD, SNIFFER, SNIFFLES & SNOOPY, all of which were granted a sum of almost € 16 millions from the European Commission.


Using a cover version of Radioactivity, the famous Kraftwerk’s song, a videoclip of the SNIFFER project made for a Frontex’s workshop, exeplain that « dogs are known for their incredible ability to detect odours, to extract them from a « complex » environment and to recognise them, but… :
. dogs can only be trained to a limited set of applications
. get tired after a relatively short operation time
. they are poorly accepted by the public
. they are expensive
. »

That said, SNIFFER received €3,5M in order to develop an « bio-mimicry enabled artificial sniffer« , as « dogs can only be trained for a small sample of odours, get easily tired and are often perceived as intrusive by the public« , and to « provide a representative set of usage cases, all related to border control security in the large sense – such as the detection of illegal substances carried by people and in suitcases (open or on a luggage belt) and cars or the detection of hidden people in containers« .

Lead by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), a public body established in October 1945 by General de Gaulle, the project gathered 15 academic, governmental and private partners, including the Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Paris and its region, ST(SI)², the technological arm of the french Minister of the Interior, the Israel National Police (INP), and ARTTIC, « the European leader in consultancy and management services for Research and Technological Development » whose portfolio contains 155 projects and which received €396 788 from EU fundings in order to « support the consortium in the daily management and administrative tasks (and to) simplify as much as possible the work of the researchers and to develop a collaborative team spirit inside the consortium« .

SNIFFER presents itself as « a natural follow-up project of the GOSPEL (General Olfaction and Sensing at a European Level) network of excellence, that ended in 2008« , and whose aim was to « exploit and consolidate expertise in artificial olfaction technologies across 25 project partners across Europe as well as more than 100 ancillary interested parties, both industrial and academic, that include some of the SNIFFER partners« . In fact, GOSPEL is still active, and organized workshops every 2 years since then.

Of all the 5 projects which received european funds in order to respond to the « Innovative, costefficient and reliable technology to detect humans hidden in vehicles/closed compartments« , SNIFFER is the only one to mention GOSPEL, but also the 4 other projects with which « SNIFFER is currently interacting« , although its website doen’t explain how.

In June, 2014, a french researcher wrote that the CEA had elaborated a system based on biosensors capable of detecting a wide range of hazardous compounds (explosives, gas fight, cocaine, cannabis, etc.), without mentioning humans. SNIFFER was tested at Athens International Airport in March 2015, and holded its final public event on May 5-6, 2015 in Paris (France), but had not yet published its final results.


DOGGIES, whose logo shows a dog with a CCTV camera in place of his head, stands for « Detection of Olfactory traces by orthoGonal Gas identification technologIES« . The project, which costed 4,9M€ and received 3,5M€ from the European Commission, is composed of 13 partners from 5 EU countries, including the Institut National de Police Scientifique (the forensics institute of the french police), the Center for Security Studies (KEMEA, the Hellenic Ministry’s of Public Order and Citizen Protection think tank on security policies), and several universities and research labs, all coordinated by a private R&D organisation jointly established by Alcatel-Lucent and Thales.

The project aims at demonstrating an operational movable stand alone sensor for an efficient detection of hidden persons, drugs & explosives, plus the potential adaptation of this solution for the detection of a much wider range of illegal substances. It relies on the combination of two technologies based on completely different physical principles, therefore qualified as « orthogonal » : mid-infrared (MIR) spectroscopy, which is based on photoacoustic detection and appears to be the most powerful and promising tool to detect a wide range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and ion mobility spectrometry, which targets the use of a non-radioactive ionisation source.

According to a poster presented at the 17th INTERPOL International Forensic Science Managers Symposium in 2013, DOGGIES combined « 6 main innovations« . An article published for the 2014 IEEE Joint Intelligence and Security Informatics Conference, specify that « for the case of human presence, volatile fatty acids (VFA) present in human sweat identified as ideal targets for remote detection of hidden persons » and that « in total 58 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were identified in this study as candidates for the detection of Humans (31), Illegal Drugs (19), and Explosives (13)« .

In addition, « IMS studies for detection of human presence has shown very promising results, recording levels of human specific gas traces after 15 minutes of a human present in an area of 50m3. This is very important considering that in most cases the people illegaly immigrating are confined in much smaller spaces and for very much longer periods (most of the times are more than one person too) which leads to increased concentration and abundance of the related VOCs hence, the instrument will definetely perform better« .

DOGGIES’ Periodic Report Summary emphasizes that « after 18 months, the main building blocks required for the development of an operational movable stand alone sensor detecting efficiently hidden persons, drugs & explosives, are nearly in place« , and that « it is expected that this final instrument will be able to complement the dogs currently used by the canine units of the police force, in operations in urban or remote areas such as border and custom points« . DOGGIE is supposed to end in november 2015.


In order to « detect a range of substances, including but not limited to people, drugs, explosives (including weapons) and CBRNe« , SNIFFLES partners, which received €3.4M from the EC, intended to develop an « artificial sniffer based on linear ion trap (LIT) mass spectrometry (MS), a non-intrusive high-resolution technique able to detect single atoms and complex molecules through their charged species (ions) or fragmentation pattern which have been increasingly deployed in security sniffing applications in the USA« .

An article entitled « Detecting illegal substances gets easier » emphasizes that SNIFFLES « is being designed to detect people carrying harmful substances, but also weapons and drugs (…) based on the device’s sophisticated ability to identify single atoms and complex molecules. It can take a ‘fingerprint’ of a substance and compare it with an online database to immediately identify it. Once commercialised, the device could be used in a myriad of ways, such as at border checks to prevent transport of illegal substances, including biological and chemical warfare agents« .

Its Periodic Report Summary emphasizes that « the main objective of the Sniffles project is to develop a state-of-the-art miniature and portable electronic gas sensor capable of detecting hidden persons and illegal substance« , and that « the instrument will automatically produce an alert when a dangerous substance is detected, which will reduce any possibility of human error in monitoring » as, contrary to X-ray scanners for instance, it will not have to be constantly human-monitored. That said, SNIFFLES goal is to « offer a more secure, less invasive, less legally and ethically questionable method of detecting illicit substances than some other competing technologies« .

publication written by english academics and researchers involved in the project explain that « this work is an attempt to assist border security crackdown on illegal human immigration, by providing essential results on human chemical signatures. (…) During experiments, participants were asked to follow various protocols while volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from their breath, sweat, skin, and other biological excretes were continuously being monitored« , which let them obtain significant information for NH3 (ammonia), CO2, water, and volatile organic compounds levels, « illustrating a human chemical profile and indicating human presence in a confined space« . Although the project is supposed to have ended in april 2015, its website, like the others, fail to address what they exactly developped, wether it works, and what has the project became.


SNOOPY is the only project especially designed as a « Sniffer for concealed people discovery« , through an « handheld artificial sniffer system for customs/police inspection purposes e.g. the control of freight containers » which will « be able to seek first hidden persons and second also controlled goods, illicit drugs and safety and security hazards« . It’s also the last one, launched in january 2014, and will which end in december 2016, and the smallest one, with only 6 partners, and €1.8M FP7 fundings.

In order to achieve its goal, SNOOPY focuses on « target gases (which) cover human perspirations like carbonic acids, aldehydes, thiolic compounds and nitrogen compounds and the human breathing product CO2 » for which « different kinds of sensors will be used so that each target can be detected as selective as possible. For providing an estimation of the probability of the presence of humans inside the inspected area pattern recognition will be used. The sniffer instrument will be benchmarked towards dogs and towards ion mobility spectrometry« .

Its website is also the only one to focus on FRONTEX and migration issues, as its first words explain that « illegal traffic of people is a major issue in security. The need to face this crime as well as the planning of countermeasures and the identification of missing capabilities has been the subject of several security programs proposed both at a world-wide and an European level. Nowadays, dogs represent the most effective “tool” to face these traffics, but they present intrinsic drawbacks that limit their continuous and systematic use: they can’t work in a 24/7 way (24 hours per day and 7 days per week)« .

As « most of human odors are produced by the skin (and) results from the combined action of both the skin glands and the bacterial populations localized at skin surfaces (…) the identification and the detection of this particular molecules is the fundamental point of the development of SNOOPY instrument« . For that purpose, the SNOOPY sniffer will be « portable, suited to work in a 24/7 way, able to recognize the sniffed atmospheres on its own, equipped with a small pipe to collect odors in proximity of small apertures (and) user friendly » in order for the user not to « be required to have scientific or technical competences to interpret the instrument display« .


HANDHOLD, which stands for « HANDHeld OLfactory Detector« , gathers nine academic and private partners, includind the Irish Customs Authority plus an « attached user group of representatives from law enforcement from around Europe« . They received €3.5M, and will work until september 2015.

Unlike the 4 other projects, and according to its report summary, HANDHOLD is a response to a 2011 FP7 challenge for an Artificial sniffer (.pdf) defined in a Call under the FP7 Security in 2011 which was referring to « the integration in a one stop shop of different technologies for the detection of illegal substances and hidden persons (…) The ‘mechanized dog’ should be able to detect in parallel a variety of possible illicit elements, with reliability, high speed of detection and identification, allowing fast threat assessment. The research should focus on exploring the overall process (how to collect odours and store them, what is the best protocol to compare, how to evaluate the performance…).« .

HANDHOLD’s Result In Brief paper summarizes the project as « a mobile network of low-power chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear and explosive sensor systems » which « central layer involves the development of a reconfigurable modular sensor platform mimicking the operational characteristics of the sniffer dog » in such a way that « the system can also carry out offline data analysis to support decision-makers in remotely coordinating field operations« . That said, « the HANDHOLD platform goes beyond the capability of most sniffer dogs because they are trained usually to target just one substance. Moreover, the HANDHOLD platform can embrace new sensor technologies when they become available in the future« .

The frontpage of its website states that « HANDHOLD delivers for the first time electronics and photonics to the operating level of the molecule, bacteria and viruses with the intent to detect and win for civil security« . The final lecture of the HandHold Summerschool, which will take place in Toulouse (France) in July 2015, will discuss the « Security & Ethical Challenges for CBRNE Sensor Development« . I’ve spent hours investigating those « mechanized dogs » developed to hunt migrants, and it was the first time I saw someone address the ethical issue.

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