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Airbus working on smell sensors that could detect coronavirus on planes

Airbus and California-based startup Koniku are working on smell sensors that can detect dangerous chemicals and explosives — and also biological hazards such as the new coronavirus.

The purple, jellyfish-like sensors are powered by silicon processors that are augmented with living cells.

The technology is “breathing the air, and it’s essentially telling you what’s in the air,” Oshiorenoya Agabi, the founder of Koniku, told the Financial Times.

The genetically engineered receptors will sound an alarm when they detect a threat that they have been programmed to sniff out. While the sensors were originally focused to work on hazardous chemicals and explosives, they are now being adapted to also cover contagious diseases, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The technology has a very quick response time of under 10 seconds in best conditions,” said Julien Touzeau, head of product security for the Americas at Airbus. “With this level of maturity it’s an incredible result and hopefully it will improve over time.”

Testing for the sensors is planned for the fourth quarter, three years after Airbus and Koniku started their collaboration in 2017.

The sensors will be placed in certain airport screening tunnels, but the primary goal is to get them into passenger aircraft as a “last line of defense” against potential security threats, according to Touzeau.

Agabi, meanwhile, envisions applications for the technology beyond aviation, as it could be used in the agriculture and defense sectors, the Financial Times reported. He is also looking to create a product “for every home” that will function like a breathalyzer, which will collect data from people that Koniku can analyze for early detection of diseases such as cancer.

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