Feds seek to sniff out toxic chemicals with cellphones

DHS working with Apple, Qualcomm and others to convert smartphones into "smell" phones

cell phone sensing deadly chemicals

The Department of Homeland Security is working with vendors such as Apple and Qualcomm to foster development of  cell phones that can protect users by detecting poisonous chemicals, including those released via accidental and intentional gas leaks.

DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate Cell-All project involves inclusion of a cheap chip in smartphones that is programmed to alert the user of a toxic chemical in the vicinity. The phone could also be programmed to alert public safety officials of a possible broad release of a dangerous chemical, with the idea being that alerts from multiple phone users ("crowdsourcing") would guard against false positives from an individual or two.

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The researchers behind the effort say such an automated system addresses shortcomings of current systems, like 911, in which it is sometimes difficult for dispatchers to understand callers, who might be under duress. Plus, it would be fast, taking about 60 seconds to detect, analyze and alert.

DHS says the system would be opt-in, and could be configured to transmit data anonymously, to help guard against those with privacy concerns.

The DHS called on the private sector in 2007 to develop concepts for handheld weapons of mass destruction detectors and now that a number of successful prototypes have been demonstrated is now funding development of working systems.

Teams from Qualcomm (miniaturization), NASA (chemical sensing) and Rhevision Technology (silicon-based artificial nose) are refining developments that would apply to the project. Also, DHS is coordinating with cell phone makers Apple, LG, Qualcomm and Samsung to adopt the technology, and hopes to have 40 prototypes in about a year, the first of which will detect carbon monoxide and fire.

The DHS effort is not the first to involve use of cell phones to sniff out trouble. Purdue University researchers have proposed outfitting cell phones with miniature radiation detectors that could detect dirty bombs.

Some would argue it’s only fair that cell phones be put on the job of detecting toxins. After all, they’re also seen as a considerable source of hazardous waste.

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