Airborne biohazard system screens travelers

In what could be good news for airport security, researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology are developing an airborne-biohazard system that could help screeners spot air travelers with lung diseases due to coronavirus and other viruses.

According to an article on the Missouri University of Science and Technology website, the researchers are using machine learning to build a robust system to alert authorities to airborne biohazards as travelers pass through TSA security checkpoints.

The research team includes assistant professor Dr. Jie Huang and visiting professor Dr. Rex E. Gerald II, their lead graduate student Chen Zhu, and assistant research professor Dr. Qingbo Yang are working on the prototype. Artificial intelligence (AI) expert Dr. Donald Wunsch recently joined the research effort.

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To trigger the airborne-biohazard system, individuals would exhale into a sensor that Huang’s team is developing to detect viruses in the breath. If the sensor indicates a virus, the breath would be chemically tagged for further testing in a spectrometer.

According to the researchers, the entire process would take less than a minute and could eventually differentiate between a cold, flu or coronavirus. The team hopes the system could be made widely available in accessible locations so that people could self-test, similar to blood pressure monitors in retail stores.

“This could provide valuable information to the individual, done in private of course,” said Gerald. “We focused on airports first to try to mitigate the impact of canceled flights in the event of a potential pandemic, which could cost billions of dollars to the airline industry.”

With each iteration of the prototype device, the research team has provided researchers in other disciplines, such as biology, chemistry, and medical research, the opportunity to evaluate the evolving design of the sensor system. The team modifies the system based on feedback from those evaluations.

According to the researchers, the front-end sensor that would indicate whether someone is sick or healthy could be ready for clinical trials in about a year, with the full system with chemical tagging and a spectrometer taking significantly longer.