DHS wants to make your cell phone a 'smell' phone

App under development would enable phones to warn of chemical leaks or attacks

The Homeland Security Department wants to equip your cell phone with a sensor that can detect the presence of deadly chemicals.

DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate is developing an application for cell phones called Cell-All. When it senses a chemical threat, the Cell-All cell phone app will send an alert in one of two ways. If the threat is something like a small chlorine gas leak, the app will send a direct warning to the user via text message, vibration, noise or phone call. If it’s a larger-scale catastrophe, such as a sarin gas attack, Cell-All will notify an emergency operations center of the event, with time, location and chemical information.

Now, if you noticed a strong chemical smell on the subway, you could call 9-1-1. The idea behind the Cell-All initiative is that you don’t have to call anybody; the phone determines the nature of the threat and makes the call automatically. Also, if a number of people have Cell-All on their cell phones when a toxic substance is released into a crowd, the emergency operations center would receive multiple alerts about the same event. This crowd-sourcing feature would decrease the number of false positives, DHS says.

This is all still in the prototype phase. DHS is funding the next step in the R&D process, a proof of principle. The department is working with four cell phone manufacturers: Qualcomm, LG, Apple and Samsung. Cell-All program manager Stephen Dennis says he hopes to have 40 prototypes in a year or so. The first one will sniff out carbon monoxide and fire.

One of the elements of the prototype is an artificial nose, developed by a company called Rhevision. It’s a piece of porous silicon that changes color in the presence of certain molecules.

I can think of plenty of times I wished I had an artificial nose on a crowded subway. Clearly, there will be advantages to having this objective measure of toxicity in crowds. On a few occasions I’ve suspected toxic fumes on a crowded subway that turned out to be either somebody’s leftover Szechuan chicken or someone who forgot their Irish Spring that morning. Fortunately, Cell-All’s artificial nose will, in theory at least, be able to distinguish the odious but harmless from real toxic fumes. 

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Apr 13, 2010

Another realy bad Big Brother idea

Sun, Apr 11, 2010 ZalaBirdGod

This is a stupid idea. Why do I need a gas monitoring device in my already power hungry iphone. It is my phone, I will determine what it does. NOT big brother. Unless they give me FREE cell phone service. Everything has a price.

Sat, Apr 10, 2010

I'm just gonna throw this out there: if these "noses" can smell those things, who's to say what ELSE they can smell, such as illicit substances (and then report it right to the authorities)?? Once you give away this little bit of freedom, abuses can (and probably will) follow...

Fri, Apr 9, 2010 Anonymous

As technology improves, cell phones will be able to collect for databanks the body odor signature of all cell phone users, and correlate them with the cell phone accounts. With further improvements they will eventually be able to separate and register according to time and location the body odors of multiple individuals within range of a single cell phone. Of course they will never make mistakes...

Fri, Apr 9, 2010

Sure it will be voluntary -- just like the mandatory requirement to buy health insurance or pay a fine in lieu. Its probably in the health care bill buried in its 2000 plus pages. If there is a Sarin attack the people in the area will be DEAD anyway. Besides it will be called a man made disaster and not a terrorism event. This is the real reason why the FCC is reaching out to control the internet. Another waste of taxpayer money just like the full body scanners

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