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Planned DHS Cell Phone App Sniffs Out Toxic Fumes

cell2A cellphone application that sniffs out deadly chemicals and alerts the user is currently under development at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.

The Cell-All initiative aims to equip all cell phones with a sensor that detects volatile substances at minimal cost—to the manufacturer and to the user’s phone’s battery life.

“Our goal is to create a lightweight, cost-effective, power-efficient solution,” said Stephen Dennis, Cell-All’s program manager.

Similar to an anti-virus program that works in the background and springs to life when it notes suspicious activity, Cell-All regularly “smells” the surrounding air for certain chemical compounds. When a threat is sensed, the application warns the user. For personal-safety issues such as a chlorine gas leak, a warning is sounded; the user can choose a vibration, noise, text message or phone call. For larger-scale catastrophes such as a sarin gas attack, details of time, location and the compound are phoned in to an emergency operations center.

While the first warning is beamed to individuals, the second warning works best with crowds. Currently, if a person suspects something is wrong, he or she might dial 911. However, often in an emergency, callers may be frantic and difficult to understand, diminishing the quality of information relayed to first responders. Another possible scenario is a person who is unaware of the danger, such as a South Carolina woman who last year drove into a colorless, odorless and poisonous ammonia cloud.

In contrast, anywhere a chemical threat breaks out, Cell-All will alert the authorities automatically. Detection, identification and notification takes place in less than 60 seconds. Because the data is delivered digitally, Cell-All reduces the chance of human error. Also, by activating alerts from many people at once, Cell-All avoids the longstanding problem of false positives. Emergency responders can get to the scene sooner and cover a larger area—essentially anywhere people are—casting a wider net than stationary sensors can.

Those who worry about privacy issues can rest assured: Cell-All will operate only on an opt-in basis and transmit data anonymously.

“Privacy is as important as technology,” Dennis said. “After all, for Cell-All to succeed, people must be comfortable enough to turn it on in the first place.”

Teams from Qualcomm, NASA and Rhevision are working together to realize the project, and Dennis said he is hoping to have 40 prototypes in about a year, the first of which will detect carbon monoxide and fire.

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