Homeland Security Backs Cell Phone Sensors to “Crowdsource” Detection of Deadly Chemicals

[Updated at 4:45 pm 11/2/09 to clarify size of NASA Ames sensing device] The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has taken the wraps off a program to develop miniaturized sensor technologies for detecting deadly chemicals—sensors tiny enough to be installed inside ordinary cell phones.

DHS officials meeting in San Diego last week say they have provided total funding of roughly $3 million over the past year for what they call their “Cell-All” program. The funding went to three different R&D groups—including two teams based in San Diego—who successfully demonstrated their prototypes Oct. 27 at San Diego State University’s Regional Technology Center for about 40 government and industry representatives. Among other things, the center serves as a technology clearinghouse and homeland security test bed for public safety agencies in the region.

HomelandSecurity logoWhile implementing such technology is still years away, DHS officials say the concept would make it possible to deploy millions of chemical sensors in the pockets, purses, and belt holsters of cell phone users throughout the United States. Their goal is to integrate miniaturized “sniffer” technology with the mobile handset’s operating system so that a sensor that detects certain volatile chemical compounds would trigger a warning alarm on the user’s phone. At the same time, data about the chemical would be transmitted to first responders and federal emergency operations centers.

“It’s almost like crowd-sourcing the chemical detection problem,” said Stephen Dennis, who is overseeing the Cell-All program for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate in Washington D.C.

Whether a cell phone owner would still be alive after his phone helped to detect, say, a nerve gas attack is another question. But the arguments cut both ways. Japanese emergency services and hospitals were heavily criticized for their slow and uncoordinated response to the 1995 gas attack in Tokyo’s subways. Doctors at many hospitals did not realize they were dealing with cases of sarin nerve gas poisoning until a professor at Shinshu University’s school of medicine recognized the symptoms from television news accounts and mobilized a team to send diagnosis and treatment information by fax. The sarin killed 12 people and sickened thousands.

If such cell phone sensor technology is eventually deployed, Dennis emphasized the system would use an “opt-in” network that would require each cell phone user to activate the sensor in their handset. “We’re very mindful of privacy issues,” Dennis said. “Even though it’s very early in development, we want to send the message that people will control whether or not they want this technology.”

It stands to reason, though, that enough people would participate so that conceivably hundreds, or even thousands, of sensor-equipped cell phones would be present at any given time in shopping malls, airports, public transit systems, and other places where people congregate.

“Instead of large stationary [sensor] systems, you’d have numerous, ubiquitous sensors throughout a region,” Dennis said. “Putting the sensors where people are is a big goal.”

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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