Whether it’s diabolical agents like mustard gas or industrial molecules prone to combustion, there are plenty of unpleasant chemicals out there that could hurt a human person. Soldiers and other frontline forces could be alerted to similar dangers in the future via small, individually worn sensors.
One of four companies working on such a device is Teledyne FLIR. Aside from fitting into a small, lightweight package, the device will need to be able to distinguish between common compounds and those that are dangerous.
Dave Cullen, vice president of sensing systems at Teledyne FLIR, refers to this combination of possible molecules in an environment as a “chemical soup.”
Some chemicals, such as truck exhaust, can be overlooked. Other substances, such as insecticides, can, however, present a unique problem for sensors. “Their chemical composition and structure can be very close to some things that are capable of killing you,” Cullen explains.
Detecting the dangerous ones, even in small numbers, while avoiding false positives is therefore crucial. “There are chemicals all around us all the time,” he says, “and sensors need to be able to distinguish between these harmful things out there and naturally occurring ones that aren’t a problem.” “The greater your sensing capability, the more data you can use to generate better answers.”
These sensors will also be able to communicate with one another, according to Cullen. Senior leaders would be able to get a hold of the big picture statistics concerning exposure in this way. Furthermore, having a large number of sensors on a large number of people, all of whom are connected, can improve the system’s detecting ability. He compares the future configuration to Waze, which has a large number of endpoints (in Waze’s instance, those endpoints are cellphones in people’s cars) that are all connected to a single large network.
Unmanned machines, such as drones and robots, could also benefit from these sensors. They’re likely to be roughly 3 or 4 inches long, an inch thick, and an inch or two wide, similar to one of those old Nokia Candybar telephones. Because soldiers already have a lot of gear to manage, getting the form-factor right is crucial. Cullen adds, “There’s simply so much they can carry about all the time.”
Substances like mustard gas and “your variety of simply horrible compounds that some unscrupulous person could wish to use,” according to Cullen, are the types of agents it will focus on identifying. Chemicals will be the focus, not biological agents like anthrax, not radiological or nuclear threats. He claims it may even identify an “explosive hazard” in an enclosed location. A sailor, for example, could wear it and be notified of a potentially hazardous condition in a ship’s hold.
According to Cullen, they may be able to start testing their technology next year.
Chemical sensors, of course, already exist. The JCAD (Joint Chemical Agent Detector) is a common example. It’s a little handheld device the size of a water bottle. The next-generation sensor is expected to be lighter, smaller, and consume less power than the JCAD.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense are responsible for funding the sensor’s development.
This project, known technically as the Compact Vapor Chemical Agent Detector, or CVCAD, has garnered a total of around $17 million in funding from four businesses. General Electric ($4.2 million), N5 Sensors, Inc. ($6 million), and Hamilton Sundstrand, Corp. ($3.1 million) are among the companies that have received funding to develop this device.
The networked devices, according to FLIR’s Cullen, will serve the “digital soldier of the future.”
“It’s a massive networked ensemble of people,” he adds, adding that the sensor “fits that model.”