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Marijuana Laws Prompt New Use of Scent Detection Tech

Nasal Ranger quantifies odors in public spaces, and helps governments deal with scent-related complaints.

by / December 10, 2013

The sense of smell is often overlooked in an increasingly digital culture. Government understands smell, though, because citizens don't hesitate to complain about offensive odors. Increasingly, agencies are seeking out St. Croix Sensory in Stillwater, Minn., for training and tools to help measure odor.

Scent drives a lot of human behaviors, and Chuck McGinley, technical director of St. Croix Sensory, told Government Technology that a really bad smell can even ruin someone’s life.

The worst thing McGinley’s ever smelled is skunk juice, brought to the company facility by Japanese researchers, who took a plane from a university in Arizona where the liquid was harvested at a skunk farm. “How they got it through security, I don’t know,” he said.

McGinley’s son Mike spent the day working with the sample, and the project took a physical and mental toll. He reported symptoms of depression after just a few hours. “Total mental warfare,” was how McGinley described the impact of the exposure to the foul-smelling liquid.

The federal government has been researching the use of smell as a potential non-lethal weapon for many years. The Guardian published an article in 2008 speculating that a new classified weapon called XM1063 was little more than a giant stink bomb.

A Nose for Government

Colorado has been using one of St. Croix Sensory’s smell measuring devices, called the Nasal Ranger (at left), for more than a decade. But with an increasing number of states and localities taking steps to legalize marijuana, recent news reports have focused on agencies using the device to sniff out complaints of marijuana stench.

It was a regulatory agency in Colorado that first realized that application, McGinley said. They were initially using the Nasal Ranger to monitor complaints about things like manure spreading, composting, chemical refineries or farms.

Chuck McGinley of St. Croix Sensory uses the Nasal Ranger at the Great Wall of China.

The number one question governments have about the Nasal Ranger, McKinley said, is “Will it hold up in court?” It has, he said, explaining that the device takes the subjectivity out of the sensitive issue of smell. Resembling a megaphone that attaches at the nose, rather than the mouth, it allows the user to measure smells by diluting them with purified air until the user can’t smell them anymore. When a smell has been diluted to the point that it can’t be detected, the smell’s score has been found.

The Story of Smell

The company also offers a service called Odor Track’r, which integrates the Nasal Ranger’s functionality with GPS capabilities to create an odor map. Many smell maps show that what people think is the source of a particular smell is not always accurate. “We set that up with cities, to collect data, to tell the story of odor in their community,” he said.

One Nasal Ranger device costs $1,750, not including training costs of up to $1,000. Training is an indispensable step for governments that are concerned with the legal side of smell complaints, McGinley said, because just like other devices used by government workers, such as radar guns or Breathalyzers, calibrating and using the device properly is crucial to proving that the collected data is relevant.

“The device itself is so very basic and its method of calibration is so very straightforward, the device itself is difficult to disqualify because of its simple clarity. The protocol of how it is used is what often falls into what you call ‘suspicion’ by a defense attorney,” he said.

Foreign Smells

More than 100 Nasal Ranger units have been sold abroad -- many to China and Hong Kong. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also using it as part of Project Sammaan, an effort to build 119 sanitation facilities to the Indian cities of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, which both suffered damage from Cyclone Phailin in October.

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Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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