• Airbus is developing a new system that can sniff out threats, including biological hazards.
  • The system uses genetically engineered living cells to detect traces of various molecular compounds in the air. 
  • The system will begin testing later this year, the company says.
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Airlines are struggling right now. It’s easy to see why, of course, with the novel coronavirus pandemic making it virtually impossible to travel, and various restrictions preventing companies from packing their planes full of passengers. Nevertheless, Airbus is working on a project that could make its planes safer not just from risks like chemicals or even bad guys with bombs, but viruses like the coronavirus, too.

In a press release, Airbus explains that its partnership with a company called Koniku is beginning to bear fruit, and the duo is getting closer to completing a system that could be capable of sniffing out threats.

Airbus is the first to admit that the air-scanning system wasn’t initially designed with viruses in mind, noting that the partnership “was originally focused on contactless and automated detection, tracking, and location of chemicals and explosives on-board aircraft and in airports.” However, as the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe, the companies decided to shift gears a bit “to include the identification of biological hazards.”

The solution to all of this lies in what Airbus calls “genetically engineered odorant receptors,” which is a fancy way of saying that the system will rely on living cells to do the actual detecting. When these tiny watchdogs catch a whiff of something they don’t like — by colliding with molecules they are designed to detect — they react and an alarm is triggered.

The idea here is that by using a variety of bioengineered receptors sniffing for different kinds of molecular compounds, a plane and its passengers will be protected from many different threats. It could be anything from ingredients typically found in explosives to chemicals that could be used in a terror attack, or, it seems, even traces of a potentially deadly virus.

Airbus says it will begin real-world testing of the system by the end of 2020, but there are still some questions left to be answered. The biggest is obviously whether or not the system will be capable of detecting the airborne coronavirus (or other viral or bacterial threats) by that time and, if so, how exactly that might work.

Imagine a scenario where passengers are boarding a flight and then, before the crew locks down the cabin, the plane alerts the crew that a virus was detected. Who has it? Is someone onboard actually sick? Does every single passenger (and crew member) need to be tested and cleared before they are allowed to fly again?

There are obviously a lot of “what ifs” here, specifically related to the idea that the detection system will sniff out biological hazards, but we’ll have to wait and see what Airbus comes up with before we can judge.

Mike Wehner has reported on technology and video games for the past decade, covering breaking news and trends in VR, wearables, smartphones, and future tech. Most recently, Mike served as Tech Editor at The Daily Dot, and has been featured in USA Today, Time.com, and countless other web and print outlets. His love of reporting is second only to his gaming addiction.