Space age device joins fight against bio-terrorism

A device for detecting poisonous gases or bio-terrorism threats such as anthrax and smallpox is to be spun out of research into military sensors at BAE Systems.

The hand-held device will use sensors capable of detecting biological and chemical agents in the atmosphere, and is being developed by the firm’s Sensor Systems division.

The technology, part of a drive by Sensor Systems to find new civilian applications for military technology developed at its Pathfinder laboratory in Edinburgh, will be able to detect the substances almost instantaneously using infrared radiation, said Jonathan Flint, the division’s managing director.

Gases and pathogens all absorb infrared radiation, but each does so to a varying extent and at different wavelengths. If the device were activated in a room containing a poisonous gas, the chemical would absorb some of the infrared radiation, reducing the energy intensity of the beam.

As the absorption characteristics of most gases and pathogens are known, the device would then analyse this fall in energy to determine what, if any, agents were present.

The basic technology has already been developed in the laboratory, and the company’s engineers are now attempting to miniaturise it so that operators could easily carry it around when scanning for pathogens and chemicals.

‘The system will enable civil authorities to know quickly if there is a threat and the nature of that threat. It could detect any gas or pathogen and display the results on a screen, perhaps telling the operator that there may be smallpox present, but no poisonous gases.’

The company is also working on a sensor system for alerting railway staff to objects on level crossings. ‘There is considerable concern at the moment about safety at level crossings. We are developing a radar system that would detect an object at the crossing, such as a car or a cow,’ said Flint.

The company is in talks with Railtrack about the system, which has been developed from its work into technology for recognising aircraft. The technology sends out a pulse from which it can take measurements of an object, to determine what it is.

On the web