Chemical Threat Detection Goes Portable

Aug. 2, 2006
New technology units appearing on the scene take chemical detection from pipe dream to prominence in security systems

Portable chemical and explosives threat detection “sniffing” is no longer just a dream for law enforcement and security directors. This technology, formerly the realm of sci-fi, has become a reality as companies have entered the market with technologies aimed for the growing homeland security sector.

One such company, Isonics Corporation, based out of Columbia, Md., made a splash today with the launch of two new products targeting this emerging market.

At its manufacturing facility in Duluth, Ga., Isonics unveiled two IMS detection systems to a mixed audience of law enforcement, business journalists, mass transit leaders and homeland security professionals. The level of interest from the LEO community, which often leads a trickle-down effect to corporate security applications, was strong, and clearly depicts how many agencies are looking for these types of threat detection systems.

What it does

To detect a chemical threat, the IMS technology, properly known as ion mobility spectrometry, captures particles from the air and then “ionizes” the particles and sends them into what’s called a “drift cell”, an area of electric charge. The particles move through the drift cell towards an electrode which then measures the particles' electric impulses. A measurement taken from the particle reaching the electrode tells the particle’s weight and charge properties, which are then used to determine what type of particle it is -- whether you have on your hands a benign chemical or a gaseous release from homemade explosives.

The IMS devices from Isonics have a library of 60 chemicals (such as Sarin gas, Tabun, mustard gas, etc.) and homemade explosives (such as TATP and TCAP), and they search the air content at the parts per billion range for these chemicals. Being able to detect the chemicals at the parts per billion level, says Isonics President Boris Rubizhevsky, means that these gases can be detected well before a lethal level is reached, giving responders time to take precautions and implement security measures.

The handheld and portable versions of the Isonics’ IMS system can be programmed to recognize 16 of those 60 most common chemical and homemade explosives threats, and according to Rubizhevsky, the systems were designed to detect the kinds of lethal materials that terrorists can actually get their hands upon. While he admits that there certainly are more than 60 chemical threats, Rubizhevsky says that they had to pick the most probable threats, and then let users choose 16 top threats of which they are most concerned.

But Isonics’ Vice President of Sales and Marketing Dennis Koehler is quick to point out that the system isn't static, Each device includes a USB connection that allows for users to update the threat profiles if a new chemical threat appears on the scene as a likely agent, or to change the list of 16 chemicals and homemade explosives that the device is set to detect.

What is perhaps unique about the Isonics units is that the technology has truly come down to a size where it can be easily handled. The units can be held and used with one hand while the user is wearing a thick, multi-layer hazards suit. Not only are the IMS units thumb-controllable while using a protective glove, but the display screens are readable while wearing shields that explosives ordinance detachments (EOD teams) would wear. The portable model, he notes, is ideal for installation in a facility's air ducts, or even in roving uses such as with law enforcement patrol vehicles.

Questions of false alarms

The question that everyone wanted to know, including Lieutenant Frederic Foster, the Emergency Preparedness Commander for the MARTA Police Department (MARTA is the Metro Atlanta subway, train and bus commuter system), was how prevalent false alarms would be with the technology. After all, the emptying of and sweeping of a subway station is a time-consuming and expensive process, says Foster, even with nine canine teams at their disposal. While Isonics could not provide any statistical data on false positives for the new equipment, Rubizhevsky did say the technology had been implemented at the German Parliament building in Berlin since 1999 and that the system there had only been falsely tripped once.

“What happened was that the cleaning company had changed its cleaning agent,” said Rubizhevsky. “One of the components of that cleaning solution was a precursor chemical for Tabun, the chemical warfare agent. So it picked up on the chemical and an alarm went off." "Once they figured out why, it made sense,” said Rubizhevsky, who said that in final consideration, it wasn't a false alarm, but a case of the detector doing what it was programmed to do.

Finding a market

The price for the unts isn't cheap, which is to be expected considering the level of specialization and research involved. The detection units will likley sell for between $20,000 and $35,000 depending upon configuration and order volume, and at that price, the main markets are law enforcement departments, mass transit providers, and first responders.

These market may be well-placed. By detecting homemade explosives (the kinds of explosives used in London and Spain’s mass transit bombings) and common nerve agents, the systems go beyond what most K-9 teams (which are often trained solely for drugs and explosives, and not for chemical agents) can recognize.

Today's detection systems, of course, move beyond simple detection of whether a particle is a "bad guy". By identifying what threat agent is in play, emergency responses can be tailored. Some gases are light, and therefore rise, so a suggested response could be to vent it skyward while having people in the area get as low to the ground as possible. But, says Rubizhevsky, a heavy gas like Sarin will sink, and if you instruct the population to get down on the ground, then you’ve actually exposed them to threat at an even greater level.

While units like those which Isonics launched today may at first be bought up by homeland security grant money (GSA placement is key to this type of device), Koehler points out that general safety issues -- not just terrorism concerns –- will likely drive further interest in emerging detection technologies.

“We had one bank that was looking at these units for its air system,” said Koehler, “not because it was concerned about terrorism, but because it was situated next to a number of rail lines and was concerned about an accidental leak from a tanker.”

Of course the best feel for how ready the market is for this type of technology can come right from the mouth of a potential user like MARTA’s Lt. Foster. Asked how seriously the Atlanta transit system brass was considering detection units for the transit stations, Lt. Foster wasted no time in his response.

“They are very serious,” was his straight-lipped reply.

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