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 and 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."