It Doesn't Have to Be that Complicated

E-mail Tom Kevan

The government and private sectors turn to sophisticated technology to ensure safety and security, spending millions of dollars in the process. And everyone breathes a sigh of relief. But if you really want reliable sensors to guarantee your safety, think simple.

High-Tech Measures
In this age of high-technology safety and security solutions, we've become conditioned to look to million-dollar systems to protect us from threats such as hurricanes and tornados, tsunamis, shark attacks, and terrorist plots. Satellites, wireless communications, and seismic sensors identify natural conditions that portend deadly tidal waves and send warnings to endangered populations. Cargo containers and airports are instrumented with a wide array of sensors to detect explosives and chemical and biological weapons.

These are all marvels to behold and testaments to our ingenuity. But there are instances when nature provides effective, low-cost means of identifying threats.

Low-Tech Measures
Look beyond the hype and glitz, and you'll find examples of simple solutions that protect life and limb. One of the oldest safety systems comes in the form of a small yellow bird. The canary was the early coal miner's life insurance policy. When the bird was taken into the mines, its highly sensitive metabolism reacted to methane and carbon monoxide gas traces in ways that warned of potential explosions or poisoned air. By observing the bird's behavior, miners could determine when the gas levels were dangerously high and leave the mine to avoid harm.

A recent news item on Sensors' Web site tells of a "groundbreaking system" to protect the public drinking water of New York City and San Francisco from contamination and potential terrorism incidents.

In these applications, Intelligent Automation's IAC 1090 Intelligent Aquatic BioMonitoring System uses bluegills (fish) as biosensors to continuously monitor the water supply and identify toxic conditions caused by a wide range of chemicals. As the fish swim and "breathe," noncontact sensors measure the ventilation rate, average depth, cough rate, and percentage of motion of the fish, which the system then classifies to provide an immediate assessment of water toxicity.

In contrast to man-made sensors, fish are reliable indicators of a wide variety of toxic substances in water, including metals, cyanide, organic solvents, and pesticides. "Nature has provided us with an extremely powerful, reliable, and accurate early warning capability unmatched in any known man-made sensor," said Jeff Goodrich, chief executive officer of IAC. Goodrich went on to say that the system has yielded zero false positives and has received unanimous positive feedback.

In all fairness, IAC's system involves much more than fish. The data collection and analysis features and the alert capabilities make the information actionable. But don't forget that without the fish the system wouldn't work. The key component of the system comes from nature.

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