Personal-security sensors vie to be the next big thing

A new company is using technology to try to make our lives safer. The secret lies in sniffing out threats with low-cost sensors

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Sun, Jan 23, 2005 - Page 12

In recent years, a lot of claims have been made in the name of mobile technology. The proliferation of phones and wireless Internet connections has revolutionized communication, while 3G has brought video calling and fast download speeds out of the realm of fantasy and into our hands.

Despite the hype, however, few have claimed mobiles would ever have the ability to save your life.

Now one young company is hoping its products will.

Owlstone -- which is based at St. John's Innovation Centre, a technology incubator in Cambridge -- aims to protect people from security threats and eventually make an impact on other areas of their lives.

The core concept is to produce tiny, low-cost smell sensors that can be deployed en masse to sniff out dangerous chemicals or explosives.

"The same detection mechanism is currently used in the military and at airports," says Billy Boyle, one of the company's founders.

"But the problem with those systems is that they use conventional manufacturing techniques -- which means they're big and expensive. We've brought in nanomanufacturing," he said.

The silicon sensor, which is the size of a button and costs Owlstone about US$9 to manufacture, filters out chemicals in the air and detects the unique compositions of dangerous substances such as chemical warfare agents.

"The system can detect around 20 fingerprints at the same time, which allows you to check for things like sarin and mustard gas simultaneously," Boyle says.

They could be attached to mobile phones, personal digital assistants and other equipment, or used on their own.

"Our idea is to put one on the lapel of every soldier or to put one in every Tube carriage," Boyle says.

With the likes of Metropolitan police commissioner Sir John Stevens claiming that a terrorist attack in the UK is "inevitable," it is easy to see how the company could raise millions of dollars in seed funding.

Though it may seem like science fiction rather than science fact, Owlstone is far from being the only proponent of life-saving sensor technology. A host of companies and research groups are currently looking at how to build sensitive microsystems that can be incorporated into small devices.

One of the latest developments has been forged by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California who have developed a radiation detector small enough to be built into a mobile phone.

By combining a complex sensor crystal with an Internet connection and the global positioning system, LLNL engineers are hoping to create a unique monitoring service. Pooling information from different sensors means the system can watch for unusual radiation levels and possibly detect a dirty bomb before it is detonated.

"Customs officials have had radiation pagers for some time," project leader Bill Craig says.

"However, those pagers cannot identify the radiation source or send information back to someone who can analyze the data," he says.

The so-called RadNet phone is expensive -- LLNL says the target price of a unit is about US$1,000 -- but it is still cheaper than existing radiation detection systems. Chemical analysis is even less expensive, and Owlstone's low-cost vision means we could soon have smell sensors in doctor's surgeries, workplaces and even in our refrigerators.

The key is using custom-made software to monitor for different kinds of chemicals, Boyle says.

"Health applications could include diagnosing tumors by breath analysis, and other non-invasive diagnosis like checking for diabetes or sugar levels in your body," he says.

"You could have them in your house, in an improved smoke detector that can check not only for smoke but also for carbon monoxide, as well as seeing if you've left the gas on.

"There could be units inside your fridge to tell you when food is going off, or if you're in a supermarket you could run your mobile phone over an apple to see if there are any pesticides on it," he says.

Despite such a wide commercial proposition, the main drivers for sensor technology are security.

The Californian project is funded by the US Department of Homeland Security, while Owlstone's funding has come in part from the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

The ultimate aim is to combine these different sensors into a single unit, providing highly developed ways of spotting a chemical, biological or nuclear threat.

"Sensor fusion is a discipline that allows scientists to combine data and provide a sum greater than the parts," Craig says.

"For example, information from a portable radiation-detection system can be combined with that from handheld detectors and video cameras, and all of the data can be integrated to give a more complete report than one type of detector could provide," he says.