Cell Phones That Protect Against Deadly Chemicals [Telecom]

I feel this is a brilliant idea. I'm reminded of the odor I smalled shortly after California's Loma Prieta earthquake in

1989 thinking it was a ruptured natural gas line; PG&E's crew rushed to the area with special sensors and it turned out the odor came from broken glass containers of insecticide in one home's garage, but still ...

In today's (12-APR-2010) issue of Science Daily: " " Do you carry a cell phone? Today, chances are it's called " a "smartphone" and it came with a three-to-five megapixel lens " built-in -- not to mention an MP3 player, GPS or even a bar code " scanner. This 'Swiss-Army-knife' trend represents the natural " progression of technology -- as chips become smaller/more " advanced, cell phones absorb new functions. " " What if, in the future, new functions on our cell phones could " also protect us from toxic chemicals? " " Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate (S&T)'s " Cell-All is such an initiative. Cell-All aims to equip cell " phones with a sensor capable of detecting deadly chemicals. The " technology is ingenious. 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. " " How would this wizardry work? 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. " " Currently, if a person suspects that something is amiss, he might " dial 9-1-1, though behavioral science tells us that it's easier " to do nothing. And, as is often the case when someone phones in " an emergency, the caller may be difficult to understand, " diminishing the quality of information that's relayed to first " responders. An even worse scenario: the person may not even be " aware of the danger, like the South Carolina woman who last year " drove into a colorless, odorless, and poisonous ammonia cloud.

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Thad Floryan
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I agree, in part.

But given the ubiquitous distribution and the vast number of cellphones, I suggest an even better approach would be for every cellphone (or any other phone-capable mobile device) to contain one randomly assigned sensor from a broader set of simple, non-user-accessible, non-user-controllable, single-threat sensor devices that would simply monitor for some single potentially threatening physical quantity in its local environment -- e.g., it might measure some indicator of low-level nuclear radiation, or of some specific chemical or even just smoke, or whatever single indicator it was designed to detect.

If this indicator crossed some threshold (which might be well below the immediately dangerous level at its location) the phone would (without user involvement or even awareness) "phone home" to some central number, give its serial number, location, an indication of what it measured, and hang up.

The automated home base for this system would likely receive, and expect to receive, an enormous number of calls that would actually be false positives, which it would be smart enough to filter and ignore. But if it began to receive a much larger cloud of such calls from a limited geographical area for any one specific indicator, it would recognize this and alert its human operators that there might be a problem here.

In other words, this idea is potentially much more valuable as a very low cost, highly automated, near ubiquitous early-warning mechanism for multiple kinds of threats and disasters than it is as a local warning device for the individual who's carrying the cellphone.

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