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Homeland Security Equips Cell Phones with Chemical Detection Sensors

The Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of Homeland Security is planning to embed a chip that is priced less than a dollar into cell phones.

This chip can be programmed to alert the mobile phone carriers regarding the presence of toxic chemicals in the atmosphere. In addition, the chip can also enable central stations in monitoring the number of such alerts received in any particular region.

This chip is part of an initiative, on which the S&T Cell is working, known as the ‘Cell-All.’ The Cell-All technology sniffs the air surrounding the cell phone regularly to detect particular chemical compounds. This initiative is focusing on the development of an ingenious technology that will embed chemical detecting sensors in the cell phones.

Currently the cell phone users can dial 9-1-1 when they suspect some issue.
This method is human-error prone and is not dependable. On the other hand, in the Cell-All technology the probability of human error is lowered due to the transmission of data in a digital mode. The Cell-All has the ability to automatically warn the concerned agencies whenever a chemical threat spreads, with the detection, identification, and notification steps completed in less than a minute.

There are two means to issue such an alert. For disasters like a sarin gas attack, the alert along with the location, time, and the related chemical compound information, is transmitted through phone to the concerned emergency operations center.  When personal safety issues are involved like the chlorine gas leakage, an alert is given in the form of phone call, noise, vibration, or text message to the user.

Engineers have been mulling over the handheld mass destruction detectors concept for many years. The S&T has requested the private sector to focus on such concepts relating to the operational domain. An increasing number of the concept-based prototypes have been showcased so far. Now the S&T is providing funds to fund the proof-of-principle initiatives, the next R&D step after the concept stage, to ascertain whether the concept is workable.

In the same vein, S&T has adopted cooperative research and development agreements with mobile phone manufacturers Samsung, Qualcomm, Apple, and LG. Such agreements usually help to speed up the technology developed for government applications for commercial usage. The program manager of Cell-All, Stephen Dennis, expects that these agreements and initiatives will result in the development of 40 prototypes in a year, and the first among them will be programmed to detect fire and carbon dioxide.

For this proof of principle initiatives, three research teams from the Rhevision Technology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Qualcomm are perfecting their respective expertise domain.  The Rhevision technologists have created an artificial nose that is made of porous silicon. This nose can change its colors when subjected to particular molecules and can be recorded spectrographically. The Center for Nanotechnology scientists at the Ames Research Center of NASA have experience related to chemical sensing for low-powered platforms like the International Space Station. Qualcomm engineers have specialized already in miniaturization as well as the technique to guide a product to the market. The commercialization may be completed in several years. Dennis hopes to have a chemical sensor in every belt holster, pocket, or cell phone.

Cell-All is able to counter the existing long-lasting false positives problem intelligently through the activation of alerts from many users simultaneously. This will help emergency responders to evaluate the scenario quickly and also cover a large region. They can cover a wider area than stationary sensors. The probability of human error is lowered due to the transmission of data in a digital mode in the Cell-All technology. The Cell-All transmits the data anonymously and used only when the user wants on an optional basis, thereby silencing the privacy respecting critics.

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