Cellphones to detect dirty bombs?

Purdue University engineers are developing a system which would use a U.S. network of cellphones to detect dirty bombs and nuclear weapons. They say that 'such a system could blanket the nation with millions of cellphones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material.' They add that the extra circuitry wouldn't change much the thickness or the price of cellphones. They also say that these radiation-tracking cellphones could be customized to ignore some radioactive sources, like in hospitals. But you can imagine that such a network would probably trigger many false alarms. I'm also skeptical about the possibility of the integration of radiation sensors by manufacturers into their phones. But read more...

Purdue University engineers are developing a system which would use a U.S. network of cellphones to detect dirty bombs and nuclear weapons. They say that 'such a system could blanket the nation with millions of cellphones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material.' They add that the extra circuitry wouldn't change much the thickness or the price of cellphones. They also say that these radiation-tracking cellphones could be customized to ignore some radioactive sources, like in hospitals. But you can imagine that such a network would probably trigger many false alarms. I'm also skeptical about the possibility of the integration of radiation sensors by manufacturers into their phones. But read more...

The evolution of the Tree of Life

You can see above a photo of two of the researchers behind this project. "Purdue physics professor Ephraim Fischbach, at right, and nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins review radiation-tracking data as part of research to develop a system that would use a network of cell phones to detect and track radiation." (Credit: Purdue University)

But they were not alone. "The system was developed by Andrew Longman, a consulting instrumentation scientist. Longman developed the software for the system and then worked with Purdue researchers to integrate the software with radiation detectors and cell phones. Cellular data air time was provided by AT&T." This development was funded by the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) through the Joint Transportation Research Program at Purdue.

Here is a quote from Longman. "The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected with a radiological dirty bomb in such an area," said Longman, who also is Purdue alumnus. "The more people are walking around with cell phones and PDAs, the easier it would be to detect and catch the perpetrator. We are asking the public to push for this."

And here is what Fischbach adds. "Cell phones today also function as Internet computers that can report their locations and data to their towers in real time," Fischbach said. "So this system would use the same process to send an extra signal to a home station. The software can uncover information from this data and evaluate the levels of radiation."

The researchers say they've tested the system in November 2007 on the Purdue campus, showing that it was able to detect weak radiation sources 15 feet away from the sensors. But how safe was the test? "We set up a test source on campus, and people randomly walked around carrying these detectors," Jenkins said. "The test was extremely safe because we used a very weak, sealed radiation source, and we went through all of the necessary approval processes required for radiological safety. This was a source much weaker than you would see with a radiological dirty bomb."

And here is the interesting part about how such a system could work. "The sensors don't really perform the detection task individually," Fischbach said. "The collective action of the sensors, combined with the software analysis, detects the source. The system would transmit signals to a data center, and the data center would transmit information to authorities without alerting the person carrying the phone. Say a car is transporting radioactive material for a bomb, and that car is driving down Meridian Street in Indianapolis or Fifth Avenue in New York. As the car passes people, their cell phones individually would send signals to a command center, allowing authorities to track the source."

I'm still not convinced that cellphone makers will anytime soon introduce radiation sensors in their devices. Drop me a line to tell me what you think.

Sources: Purdue University news release, January 22, 2008; and various websites

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