Science Fiction No More

E-mail Melanie Martella

So, this week I got to sit in on a demonstration of a technology that probably sounds like science fiction unless you've been following the interesting conjunction of the smartphone and the sensor. A cellphone, detecting dangerously elevated levels of carbon monoxide, resulted in first responders showing up, at the cellphone's location, to save the people at risk.

In reality, there were no people at risk, just dummies in a mocked up hotel room at the Los Angeles Fire Department's training ground. But the technology and the result were real and are the result of years of hard work and inventiveness from the Department of Homeland Security's Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) working with researchers from NASA Ames Research Center, chemical sensor company Synkera, fabless chip manufacturer and wireless R&D company Qualcomm, as well as situational readiness company NC4.

What they've created is extraordinary: under the Cell-All program, the intent is to create chemical sensors that live inside your smartphone and that can be used to crowdsource environmental monitoring as well as to act as your own personal chemical detector. The plan also involves giving the first responders gadgetry that is actively useful. When they asked first responders what chemical they most wanted to sense, carbon monoxide topped the list: it is THE leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the U.S. and, indeed, worldwide.

So what does Cell-All do that the carbon monoxide detector in your home can't? Well, it goes wherever you go, for starters. Second, if the detector measures elevated levels of the gas it can sound an audible alarm (for you) and then send the data, via your phone, to an Internet server where the risk level is assessed, and if the risk is judged severe, emergency services can be alerted and dispatched. That means two things: first, that the call for help goes out ideally before your exposure is fatal and second, that it tells the first responders what they're dealing with. Both of those are pretty awesome.

The other interesting capability is the crowdsourcing aspect. By having multiple sensors in multiple cellphones, all of which can provide location and concentration information (the Cell-All program is, incidentally, voluntary and, because people get more than a little twitchy about how identifying data can be used, the program strips identifying information from the data before forwarding the location and concentration data to the network operations center.) If multiple phones report a sufficiently serious exposure, that data can be relayed to NC4 where an analyst judges whether it's something that warrants sending out the firemen or other emergency response personnel.

The Phase II prototypes use a separate module that either connects directly to the smartphone or uses Bluetooth to communicate with a smartphone. These produce a matched phone/sensor pair. During the demo, the first responders were using modules that clipped to their clothes, for instance. Plans are afoot, however, to get the sensor into the handset.

Here are the things that impressed the heck out of me about the project and the demo: first, the sensors. Both NASA Ames' nanosensor array and Synkera's tiny MEMS chemical sensors are beautiful pieces of sensing technology because they're both natively low-power, robust, require no consumables, and highly sensitive (ppm to ppb). Second, the Cell-All team figured out not only how to get the sensor to talk to the handset, but how to adjust the frequency of reporting so as not to kill your battery and overload the phone network if, say, lots of phones at a large event all start sensing a chemical leak at the same time. While parts of the system are automated, it also relies on trained humans to assess when to call in the cavalry. And finally, the system not only provides you with a useful personal safety tool, but it also provides valuable information to the first responders and provides a platform on which to build additional types of chemical monitoring.

Kudos to the L.A. Fire Department and to the Cell-All team for doing a great job and I can't wait to see how the future iterations of the project develop.