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Electronic Design

Homeland Security Spending "Sniffs Out" New Tech Tools

Say what you will about deficit spending for Homeland Security. If nothing else, many of the programs should be money well spent when it comes to helping create American engineering jobs. This week, my local newspaper ran an item about how our county is showing off some of the electronic anti-terrorism equipment it recently purchased with $1.5 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This is Morris County's share of $29.2 million allocated to New Jersey this year for equipping first responders—police, fire, and emergency crews—in the event a of terror attack. Next year, New Jersey's share of federal funds for first response grows to $87.4 million.

It got me thinking. If every county throughout the state and across the country is receiving this kind of money and spending much of it on innovative electronic equipment, it's got to help combat the record EE unemployment rate. Of course, it's also making us all safer against the specter of a chemical or biological weapon attack.

The scope of this program should have an impact. The federal government is spending more than $13 billion to equip and train local agencies in first responses to terrorist attacks. Over 500,000 responders have been trained in weapons of mass destruction awareness and response since September 11, 2001.

So what sort of equipment is this $13 billion helping to bring to a police or fire department near you? Morris County has acquired two key devices.

The APD 2000 handheld chemical detection and monitoring system tracks down nerve and blister agents by using ion mobility spectrometry. When it detects a target substance, it sounds an alarm and displays the type of agent and class (nerve or blister) on its LCD. The APD 2000 was developed by the Environmental Technologies Group, which is now part of the Smiths Detection Agency.

The Travel IR portable infrared spectrometer can identify more than 11,000 compounds. Developed by SensIR Technologies, the device uses a high-throughput interferometer to identify biological weapons and other hazardous substances.

Augmenting the First Responder spending, the Department of Homeland Security has an additional budget for BioWatch. This program helps protect many large U.S. cities by monitoring the air for biological agents that could be released by terrorists. According to the Associated Press, the government has deployed air monitoring systems in secret locations in at least 31 cities. The White House estimates the monitoring cost to be about $1 million annually per city.

This environmental monitoring should mean some serious advances for the burgeoning field of sensor networking and offer design challenges for engineers at companies like Sentel Corp. Sentel's wide-area network system enables users to monitor and control sensors from a centralized location. The company's Remote Data Relay systems can integrate and manage devices such as video cameras, weather tools, particle counters, metal detectors, and motion detectors, according to James Garrett, Sentel's president and chief executive officer.

The government's interest in advanced sensing and "sniffing" also could lead to rapid developments for those in the formerly esoteric field of "electronic noses."

Cyrano Sciences Inc., licensee of the "electronic nose" technology developed at Caltech, markets the Cyranose 320. This portable sniffing tool uses polymer composite sensors to measure vapors and create digitized patterns that can be used to electronically identify smells.

Meanwhile, Electronic Sensor Technology's zNose Model 4200 is a handheld gas chromatograph that uses a surface-acoustic-wave detector, 500 orthogonal virtual sensors, an internal sampling pump, and a preconcentrator. Within 10 seconds, the Model 4200 captures a vapor sample, injects and passes it through a gas chromatograph column, and determines the concentration of chemicals in the vapor.

Additionally, Electronic Sensor Technology claims the zNose is the only electronic nose technology to receive validation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for environmental monitoring of air and water as well as from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for drug and contraband interdiction.

If all goes well, we'll see our return on tax spending via the advances and commercialization of such interesting new technologies. While it's good to know the emergency response technology is in place, I know we'd all prefer to leave the Homeland Security applications untested.

TAGS: Components
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