Friday, May 08, 2015

HEY, JOHNNY MAC, WHAT'S WRONG WITH AN INEXPENSIVE MINE-DETECTION PROGRAM INVOLVING ELEPHANTS?

Over at FoxNews.com, John McCain lets us know that he just released a report on government spending:
Today, May 7, I am releasing the first in a new series of reports ... titled "America’s Most Wasted," exposing questionable Washington spending....
Examples of programs McCain considers wasteful? Well, there's this:
One of the programs listed in the 19-page “America’s Most Wasted” report is a $50,000 dollar grant awarded to researchers for the purpose of studying the ability of African elephants to sniff out bombs. It’s still not clear whether elephants are superior to dogs in bomb detection.

“While finding new ways to enhance our bomb detection methods is important, it is unlikely that African elephants could feasibly be used on the battlefield given their large size and sensitive status as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act,” the report states.
Hmmm -- is that the same program that was enthusiastically written up a couple of months ago in an AP story that was reprinted in that lefty rag the New York Post?
New research conducted in South Africa and involving the US military shows they excel at identifying explosives by smell, stirring speculation about whether their extraordinary ability can save lives.

“They work it out very, very quickly,” said Sean Hensman, co-owner of a game reserve where three elephants passed the smell tests by sniffing at buckets and getting a treat of marula, a tasty fruit, when they showed that they recognized samples of TNT, a common explosive, by raising a front leg.

Another plus: Elephants remember their training longer than dogs, said Stephen Lee, head scientist at the US Army Research Office, a major funder of the research.

... In ... tests, the elephants wrongly identified only 18 out of 502 buckets as containing TNT, amounting to a 3.6 percent error rate....

In a second set of tests, the elephants scored 100 percent, detecting TNT in 23 out of 23 buckets when “distractor odors” of tea, bleach, soap and gasoline were placed in the other buckets....
The point isn't for elephants to do this work in possible minefields:
Lugging around the huge mammals to mine fields wouldn’t be practical, so one idea is to bring parts of the mine fields to them.

Unmanned drones would collect scent samples from mined areas; a trained elephant would then smell them and alert handlers to any sign of explosives....
Or, as Stars & Stripes explains, scientists could learn how elephants detect odors and build what they've learned into mine- and bomb-detecting robots:
“If elephants proved to be very good at this task, then the goal was to try to determine how they do it so that understanding could be applied to the design of better electronic sensors,” said Joe Ferrare, a spokesman for the Army research command.

New and more effective bomb detection technology could be incredibly valuable to the military.
Yes, because:
Improvised explosive devices have proved a daunting threat to U.S. forces in the wars since 9/11. More than half of those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were the victims of IEDs and the military spent billions scrambling to field mine-resistant troop vehicles as protection.
Now, remind me again how much this elephant program cost, Stars & Stripes?
The $50,000 cost of researching elephants in 2012 is part of the Army command’s total annual research budget of $5.6 billion.
Yes -- that $50,000 was less that 1/1000th of 1% of the total research budget. Or to put it another way, it's less than 2/100s of a penny for every man, woman, and child in America.

And you can read this 2009 Harvard Gazette story if you doubt that scientists really do try to replicate animals' sense of smell in robots.

So really, Johnny Mac, what's the problem here?

5 comments:

James Stapleton said...

The problem here would be, as it's long been, that McCain is a grandstanding douchebucket.
I know, fish in a barrel.

Victor said...

$50,000 out of $5.6 billion?

I think, pardon the pun, Johnny Mac's missing the elephant in the room.

Tom Hilton said...

This is part of the unfortunate legacy of William Proxmire. Obviously there is wasteful spending (though shocking as it might be to conservatives, that's true of the private sector as well); the problem is that almost any spending can be spun as 'wasteful', and research spending in particular (which is arguably the most important) is easy to ridicule. The Golden Fleece Awards have bequeathed us a political climate where we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Victor said...

Well put as always, Tom Hilton.

tony in san diego said...

I bet this America's most Wasted (I will eschew the punchline!) program costs more than $50,000.