Warfighters can soon use rugged, encrypted smartphone detectors to identify chemical and biological agent

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By ECBC Communications


A warfighter is performing a mission in a dangerous area where civilians are showing signs of a possible chemical or biological agent exposure. Without the luxury of a full laboratory at his fingertips, it would be difficult for him to investigate the situation right then and there, prolonging any type of additional effort, possibly putting his life and the civilians’ lives in jeopardy. Thanks to the strong partnership between scientists and engineers at U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC), iSense, LLC., U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), this dangerous scenario would not occur. ECBC, iSense, CERDEC and DTRA are working together to give warfighters a quick, new way to evaluate potential chemical and biological (CB) threats using smartphones and an encrypted network within minutes.

The program first began when ECBC researchers were awarded $27,000 through ECBC’s Innovative Projects Proposal Program, an internal program that funds innovative ideas generated by ECBC principal investigators, to conduct a series of tests on volatile organic compound (VOC) strips. VOCs are postage stamp-sized, colorimetric sensor assays with 88 different indicator dyes developed by iSense LLC (Boston, MA). The project set out to explore VOC’s potential for detection, presumptive identification or chemical dosimetry. After a successful testing period, ECBC established a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with iSense LLC., to develop defense-focused VOC technology. One of these developments is the mobile CB detection program.

“The VOC strips are the core technology of this project. They are inexpensive, easy to manufacture and compare data within the library,” Emanuel said.

If a warfighter is in a potentially dangerous area, he could investigate the situation by gathering an environmental (such as soil) or biomedical (such as urine) sample and place it on a VOC strip. Then the strip is loaded on a device called the Biotouch. From there, the warfighter can leave the potentially contaminated area for a safer spot and receive the test results on a separate device called the Nett Warrior phone, through a secure and encrypted Army network. Results from the VOC will be geographically tagged (geo-tagged) and added to a secure cloud system. Both the Biotouch and Nett Warrior phones are rugged enough for use in-theater, but still light enough to be easily transportable.

The Biotouch is a 3’x3’x5’ discreet object that can fit into a pocket. Its design was modeled after small objects such as condiment lids and flashlights.

“The idea is to have two smartphones: the Biotouch that could test the VOC and the Nett Warrior phone that would receive the information from a different location. The two will be able to communicate with each other through a phone portal within the encrypted network,” explained Emanuel.

The Nett Warrior phone is a military-adapted version of the commercially available Samsung GALAXY Note II. CERDEC has worked extensively with the Nett Warrior phone over the past year under their Research and Development Mission program called Multi Access Cellular Extension. CERDEC is developing the interface for the Nett Warrior to communicate and obtain readings from the Biotouch. ECBC engineers are using their in-house industrial 3-D printing capability to develop the Biotouch colorimetric assay reader. The construct of the two phones will allow for easy software updates. The Biotouch is a static device with proven technology while the Nett Warrior phone would evolve with technical advances.

Other styles of mobile detectors allow smartphones to double as microscopes and hand-held assay (HHA) readers, but there were several challenges. When ECBC initially tested these methods during demonstrations, warfighters commented that this style was not suitable for Army use. In this style, users attached an external reader to their phone and then placed the assay on the reader and read the results right there on the mobile device, many times civilian phones that were not rugged enough for in-theater use. Also, a typical civilian cellular network is not compliant with Army networks; geo-tagged information was unprotected. Finally, the all-in-one style reader required the user to be near the sample the entire time –a practice that has potential to be dangerous. The new Army-compliant system addresses these issues.

Emanuel said that the mobile detector program is a great example of how different organizations can come together to create impactful solutions. CERDEC representatives agree.

“This is the first time our group has collaborated with ECBC. The experience has been great so far and relationships with other ECBC groups are being fostered as a result of this partnership as well,” said Marianne Lazzaro, acting branch chief of CERDEC’s Commercial Technology Integration and Evaluation Branch, which supports multiple projects with their smartphone and cellular applications, and oversees multiple research and development programs that bring commercial mobile technologies to the battlefield.

Prototypes of the CB mobile detection system will be completed in May 2014 for use in two projects, the Joint United States Forces Korea (USFK) Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition advanced technology demonstration (JUPITR ATD) and in a medical countermeasures project with Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC).

JUPITR ATD is a program led by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD) and supported by ECBC, which will provide unique biological detection capabilities to address the demand for stronger biosurveillance capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. The prototypes will be used in the Republic of Korea to capture air samples and tested as viable biological detectors for the program. TATRC will use the devices to read and analyze commercial, off-the-shelf assays that can then be sent to networks used in military hospitals and possibly civilian hospitals as well. The goal is also for this data to be free of personally identifiable information.

“I am very excited to be collaborating with new people from across RDECOM on this project,” said Jeff Warwick, ECBC Conceptual Modeling and Animation Branch chief and lead engineer on the mobile technologies project. “It’s especially great to be able to work with TATRC, which is a new organization to us.”

Emanuel envisions that this new Army-compliant mobile CB detector capability could be applicable to organizations outside of the Department of Defense, including civilian hospitals, Customs and Border Protection and the Food and Drug Administration.

“Imagine a cargo of bananas arrives into an American port. To ensure optimal safety of the shipment, a Biotouch is placed in the box to collect some samples. All an inspector has to do is monitor the results coming into the reader to ensure that the cargo is safe from harmful CB agent,” Emanuel said. “That’s just one example that could have a big impact. There are so many more possibilities for this type of technology, and I’m glad that we’re building it for the Army.”

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