DHS Wants Cell Phones to Detect Chemical, Radioactive Material

Congressional Quarterly | June 4, 2007
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

American cell phones can already check e-mail, surf the Internet and store music, but they could have a new set of features in coming years: the Department of Homeland Security wants them to sense biological, chemical and radioactive material.

Putting hazardous material sensors in commercial cell phones has been discussed in scientific circles for years, according to researchers in the field. More recently, the idea gained support among government agencies, and DHS said publicly in May that it wants businesses to start coming up with proposals.

At the 2007 DHS Science and Technology Stakeholders Conference, S&T Director of Innovation Roger McGinnis outlined how the system could work. Cell phone sensors would continually test the air for harmful compounds and digitally relay any information to a central monitoring system if they find anything amiss.

“It’s a great way to get millions of detectors out there,” McGinnis said.

Like the built-in GPS function many cell phones now offer, customers would have the option of turning the sensors off, McGinnis said.

S&T spokesman Christopher Kelly said the theoretical system’s strength would lie in the sheer number of sensors. The cell phone sensors might be less sophisticated than highly advanced ones some developers are fitting into hand-held models, but they would make up for it in what Kelly called “ubiquitous detection.”

If just one went off, it could be ruled a false positive, he said. But if several detected a harmful compound, emergency workers would know there was a problem, triangulate the phones’ location react to the situation. 

“Cell phones that are now made have GPS technology,” Kelly said. “And, if you have a cell phone equipped with that, it can transmit the time and place of an event.”

The proposal has a working name, “Cell-All,” but is far from a contract phase at this point. Kelly said S&T has not even reached the point of sending out Broad Agency Announcements — which present problems or challenges to the business community and ask for solutions — to potential developers.

He said the idea came from S&T, rather than from businesses, although some private researchers said they have been working on similar projects for years.

“It’s a DHS initiative,” Kelly said. “It’s something we’re very interested in.”

Depending on who in the business community is speaking, the equipment to make Cell-All possible is either many years and several technological breakthroughs away or just around the corner.

About a week after McGinnis’ presentation at the S&T Stakeholders Conference, two U.S. companies announced a partnership to create “personal environmental threat detectors” for cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Pennsylvania-based eV Products, which manufactures x-ray and gamma ray detection equipment, and Gentag Inc., a company with offices in Washington, D.C., and the Netherlands that designs radio frequency identification (RFID) and other sensors for cell phones are stepping up to the plate. For now, their primarily goal is to create a cell phone-based platform that detects only radiation.

When asked if the technology for a Cell-All-like system currently exists, eV Products Manager of Global Marketing Rick Smith said. “The short answer is yes. The question is what target price, what audience, what use.”

He said his company has already been testing equipment.

“There have been some real advanced prototypes that have been developed,” he said. “Realistically, these things take a lot of time.”

One particular challenge for eV Products’ researchers has been coming up with a sensor that can tell the difference between harmless and dangerous radiation, Smith said.

In the chemical and biological worlds, he said, dangerous compounds are rare. But, “in contrast, radiation is a problem, because when you pick up radiation in the world, 99 percent of it is supposed to be there.”

Patent Approved

John P. Peters, president and CEO of Gentag, said he first began thinking about combining radiation sensors and personal detection equipment, such as GPS functions in cell phones, in 1996.

“We’ve been thinking of this technology for a long time,” he said. “After Sept. 11 [terrorist attacks], I said ‘Hey, we really need to expand this concept.  . . .  What you really want is to put inexpensive scanners out there.’ ”

In Sept. 2006, Gentag received a patent for a flexible, cost-effective detection system using “electronic devices such as mobile phones, PDAs or watches, in combination with new microsensor technologies.”

“Because of the broad and ubiquitous use and distribution of mobile phones and watches, the technology will maximize the chances of an encounter between the bearer of a modified personal device and a potential threat,” the patent says.

The patent gives several different options for setting the system up, and includes proposals for biological and chemical detection, in addition to radiation. 

Some devices could have built-in slots allowing users to swap different types of sensors in and out, the patent says. Others could have miniature radiation sensors built directly into them. The phones could have separate “noses” for biological and chemical matter, or it may be possible to create a single “Homeland Security” chip that could search for all dangerous material.

The document says the sensors could be monitored through GPS technology or through a proposed method that may be more reliable and would measure how much time it takes for cell signals to hit relay towers. That information could then be used to triangulate the phone’s position.

Peters said his company has been discussing possible partnerships with handset manufacturers Qualcomm and Samsung. What the manufacturing industry now needs is for the government to make Cell-All a priority, he said.

“The government is needed here, and this announcement by DHS was helpful,” he said. “But we really need them to push this.”

Small and Cheap

Another developer who shares Peters’ optimism about the technology is Martin Dudziak, founder, chairman and chief science officer of Tetrad Technologies Group, Inc.

“We have it,” he said of the sensor and networking technology.

Dudziak said he wants to integrate a cell phone sensor feature into Nomad Eyes, a digital network his company created. Tetrad encourages people with camera- and Internet-enabled cell phones to send data to Nomad Eyes, which will then analyze it and forward it to the proper authorities.

He said his company already has a hand-held biological sensor that can detect tuberculosis, influenza, salmonella, e. Coli and hepatitis, and is ready to put similar hardware in phones.

“We focused first on defining what kind of technology could be small, low-powered, compact, adaptable and really cheap,” he said.

Dudziak said he has tried to present his idea to government officials, but has been rejected each time.

“Specific people at DHS have been specifically turning the cold shoulder to us,” he said.

Others in the scientific and manufacturing fields are not so hopeful about how soon Cell-All could be operational.

Bob Durstenfeld, director of corporate marketing for RAE Systems Inc., a San Jose, Calif., company that makes hand-held sensors, as well as systems that have been used at Super Bowls and Presidential inaugurations, said sensors will not stay reliable without frequent service.

“Very few of them work very long without calibration,” he said. “The technology just isn’t there yet.”

Durstenfeld added that he does not see the advantage of a cell phone network over a simpler solution, such as putting sophisticated biological, chemical and radiation sensors on all first-responder vehicles.

“Is it feasible?” he said of Cell-All. “Sure. Does it give you anything? Not really.”

Dartmouth College has done sensor and networking development for the government in the past, and is currently working on MetroSense, a system that can track the movements of people over large areas in real-time. George Cybenko, one of the engineering professors on the project, said “several technological breakthroughs would have to happen” before Cell-All would work.

A primary problem, he said, is the issue of location. He said the tracking hardware in cell phones is only truly reliable outdoors. 

“When people are indoors, we’re not sure where they are, because the GPS function doesn’t work well,” he said.

Other problems include the need to shrink sensors down to fit in cell phones, how expensive they would be and how much battery power they would consume.

“There are two questions — the technical feasibility and the business model,” Cybenko said. “How do you incentivize it?”

Harold Swartz, a Dartmouth professor of radiology, noted that researchers have tried in the past to put radiation dosimeters in credit cards.

“So far they have been spectacularly unsuccessful,” he said.

He added that making a single detector for all harmful radiation is much easier than for chemical or biological compounds.

“That part of the technology...my impression is, it’s really tough,” he said.


Along with the potential technical troubles, Cell-All has social implications, something S&T has already acknowledged.

“DHS is looking at this very carefully from a privacy standpoint,” Kelly said.

Still, Lisa Graves of the Center for National Security Studies said she is concerned about whether linking cell phones to a sensor network would intrude on consumers’ lives.

“Part of it is that we’ve had a lack of control across the board,” she said. “We have had a proliferation of surveillance, such as cameras in cities, that Americans can’t control.”

She said she also worries that Cell-All is another in a long line of technological “magic bullet” proposals that drain funding away from areas where it could be more effective.

“Obviously, we have serious threats right now,” she said. “We need personnel, human intelligence. And yet tremendous amounts of money get siphoned off to technology.”

Human intelligence initiatives, such as solving the shortage of translators at the FBI and other agencies, could likely be put into effect faster than projects such as Cell-All, Graves said.

Durstenfeld, of RAE Systems, noted that Cell-All could create public panic, if it is not implemented properly. He noted that the current idea for the system would help monitoring agencies and first-responders, but would not be of much use to someone carrying a sensor.

“There are pluses and minuses to it,” he said. “What are you going to do when the sensor alert on your cell phone goes off?”

But Smith, of eV Products, said he believes consumers will want the sensors.

“The reality is there’s a market for people who want to carry these things.”