More than a marriage of convenience
In August, a London terror cell allegedly planned to bomb U.S.-bound, trans-Atlantic jetliners using common household chemicals. Now government and private agencies are pitching hand-held chemical detectors as part of the solution for staving off future attacks.
Most existing technologies focus solely on chemical-agent detection and not biological or nuclear threats. For example, RAE Systems’ AreaRae is a ruggedized, chemical-only detector the size of a lunchbox. It has been deployed at Oakland’s McAfee Stadium, during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and at architectural digs. It currently is being used to test pollutants affecting the Terracotta Warriors and Horses — a collection of more than 6000 life-size terracotta figures located in China’s Xi’an, Shaanxi, province near the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.
The AreaRae system uses up to 10 sensors capable of distinguishing a variety of chemicals, including ammonia, carbon dioxide, chlorine and sulfur dioxide. Each sensor has a different sensitivity range and can be fixed or mobile. For example, one sensor tests volatile organic compounds to 0.1 parts per million, said Bob Durstenfeld, RAE Systems’ director of corporate marketing. The radio frequency modem operates in the 900 MHz, license-free ISM band to let users wirelessly transmit data to a remote base station more than 2 miles away in a rural landscape or less than a mile away in urban areas.
To deploy the system during a chemical incident, first responders wearing chemical gear physically enter the scene to drop the sensors in a circular pattern. Each unit is displayed on the remote command-post display once it goes live, and data begin to transmit in 4 to 5 minutes, Durstenfeld said. Optional system components such as GPS-mapping software and a plume measurement system help command centers track units’ location and instruct them on where to place sensors, depending on temperature, wind gusts and humidity. Any data gathered can be shared with local, state and federal agencies.
“[The data] can be uplinked to a server, so FEMA or the Centers for Disease Control can log into the system and see the same data as the local command center,” Durstenfeld said.
But the system would not have detected the hydrogen peroxide- and acetone-based makeshift explosives at the center of the thwarted bomb plot against 10 jetliners originating from London. Instead, each bottle of lotion, toothpaste and water — now banned by the Transportation Security Administration — would first have to be opened so they could be tested for toxic or explosive chemicals, Durstenfeld said.
“You can color them, and, until you open the bottle, you have no idea what you are dealing with,” he said.
However, there are hand-held technologies capable of detecting chemical elements through plastic and glass bottles, such as Ahura’s FirstDefender Raman spectrometer. At 4 pounds, the hand-held device meets MIL 810-F standards for sand and dust and is ruggedized to resist damaging toxic chemical exposure. It can detect 2500 chemicals, including chemical-weapon components, explosives, toxic chemicals, white powders, narcotics and household cleaners. It also holds information about plastic and glass components, so it can decipher compounds in containers and distinguish them from volatile chemical elements, said Eric Schmidt, Ahura’s vice president of business development.
Unfortunately, FirstDefender provides visual verification of the chemical found, but it does not have a wireless component. Should users want to send the data wirelessly, they must first download it onto a flash card, he said. The card and hand-held then must be decontaminated before they are inserted into a wireless-enabled laptop.
While the company is looking at wireless solutions, including an OnStar-type of service, it still is sorting out the data transmission needs of its clientele. Currently, Schmidt doesn’t believe the lack of wireless capability is an issue with customers.
“There are [detectors] that communicate wirelessly,” Schmidt said. “But if you talk to users who have used that capability, it’s more of a marketing thing than something that’s useful at the moment.”
Yet research-and-design firms and U.S. government agencies have spent considerable resources marrying the two technologies. Both the Sandia National Laboratory — a government-owned contractor operated by Lockheed Martin — and the U.S. Army have spent millions on the development of wireless-enabled chemical detection technology.
Developed for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, Sandia’s hand-held is built to gather data after a chemical accident has occurred. The BROOM, or Building Restoration Operations Optimization Model, is part of the Contaminated Facility Rapid Restoration Project developed after the 2001 congressional anthrax scares, said Duane Lindner, deputy director for the laboratory’s chemical and biological programs.
BROOM was developed to act as a database for users wishing to track samples and create contamination maps. It runs on the Pocket PC operating system and uses a Leica GeoSystems’ Bluetooth-controlled DISTO laser-distance meter. It correlates samples, pinpoints their locations and sends the information wirelessly to a server.
It also is armed with mapping software so HazMat teams can enter a facility, document and label samples and record the locations of the contamination. This helps diminish the economic consequences of a disaster by quickly categorizing the threat level at an airport or government facility, Lindner said.
“If there should be an attack on a key facility, we have to understand what it takes to get [it] up and running just as soon as possible,” he said.
However, it falls short of recognizing the actual chemicals gathered. It cannot identify the chemical samples, only categorize them and electronically map the affected area for HazMat crews and command centers.
In comparison, the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) has integrated hand-held chemical detectors into existing platforms. This includes using Smiths Detection’s hand-held, a lightweight chemical detector (LCD) that weighs 1.3 pounds. It identifies toxic industrial chemicals, nerve and blister agents, explosives, narcotics and common chemicals in less than 5 seconds, according to the company.
Like Ahura’s FirstDefender, Smiths’ LCD does not have a wireless component. Instead, it is integrated into an ECBC-developed system with existing wireless capabilities based on 802.11 technologies, said Vincent McHugh, a research chemist with the center. The ECBC is using the hand-held as part of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Unmanned Ground Vehicle program, which uses a 53-pound PackBot robot developed by iRobot Corp. and designed to assist with explosive ordnance disposal, HazMat response and other law-enforcement tasks.
Peter Annunziato, technical manager of the CBRN Unmanned Ground Reconnaissance Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration Program, said the detectors are hardwired into the robot’s payload box. The box integrates the data from the detectors into a single stream fed directly into the robot, from which it is transmitted back to the operator. Using a standard antenna, data can be sent 750 meters line-of-sight, Annunziato said; with a long-range antenna, range increases to 1000 meters.
McHugh said the ECBC also has placed Smiths’ LCD on the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by government contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. It is flown remotely from the Predator Ground Control Station using a C-Band, line-of-sight data link or a Ku-Band satellite data link for beyond-line-of-sight flight.
For McHugh’s project, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory headquartered in Washington, D.C., developed a mini-UAV called the Finder, which launches from beneath the wings of the Predator. His team used Smiths’ hand-held as part of the Finder’s chemical-detection payload, which also featured a sample retrieval capability called SPIDER, or spectrometric point ionizing detector-expendable/recoverable.
SPIDER was developed to test contamination after a military air strike on a target, with real-time reports transmitted via the satellite link back to the ground-control station.
“The SPIDER would be in place in the mini-UAVs, prior to an event, and then would be released from the Predator and hover in a remote location until the strike happened,” he said. “The mini-UAVs would interrogate the area, downwind, to see if any chemical had been released and track the cloud.”
Some pundits argue, however, that chemical detectors are only a small part of the effort to combat chemical disasters and attacks. David Mosher, nuclear policy analyst at the nonprofit policy think tank RAND Corp., said policymakers also need to consider procedural, policy, legislative and communication issues and avoid viewing technology as a panacea.
“Quite frankly, it’s not clear to me how much a technological solution will solve the chemical weapon problem in the sense that the attacks happen fairly quickly and are generally localized, so you would have to have detectors everywhere,” Mosher said.
He also worries about the future effect of large-scale deployment of chemical detectors — for example, the public becoming impervious to alerts because of false alarms — and prescribes moderation.
As an alternative to widespread deployment, Mosher suggests an analytical identification of the most likely threats and realistic risk comparison between chemical weapons attacks and those that utilize improvised explosives.
“My personal view is that [improvised explosives] are the more likely threat than [weapons of mass destruction],” he said. “They’re technically quite straightforward, and you can make them from fuel oil and fertilizer, just like Tim McVeigh did.”