Washington: A group of scientists has come up with new functions on cell phones that could protect us from toxic chemicals.
Homeland Security`s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T)`s Cell-All aims to equip cell phones with a sensor capable of detecting deadly chemicals. A chip costing less than a dollar is embedded in a cell phone and programmed to either alert the cell phone carrier to the presence of toxic chemicals in the air, and/or a central station that can monitor how many alerts in an area are being received. One might be a false positive. Hundreds might indicate the need for evacuation. "Our goal is to create a lightweight, cost-effective, power-efficient solution," says Stephen Dennis, Cell-All`s program manager.
Its working: Just as antivirus software bides its time in the background and springs to life when it spies suspicious activity, so Cell-All would regularly sniffs the surrounding air for certain volatile chemical compounds.
When a threat is sensed, an alert ensues in one of two ways. 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 catastrophes such as a sarin gas attack, details—including time, location and the compound—are phoned home to an emergency operations center. While the first warning is beamed to individuals, the second warning works best with crowds. And that`s where the genius of Cell-All lies—in crowd sourcing human safety.
Anywhere a chemical threat breaks out—a mall, a bus, subway or office—Cell-All will alert the authorities automatically. Detection, identification, and notification all take place in less than 60 seconds. Because the data are delivered digitally, Cell-All reduces the chance of human error. And by activating alerts from many people at once, Cell-All cleverly avoids the long-standing problem of false positives. The end result: 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. "Privacy is as important as technology," says Dennis. "After all, for Cell-All to succeed, people must be comfortable enough to turn it on in the first place."
First Published: Saturday, April 10, 2010, 22:48