Biodetectors sniff out deadly airborne agents

The Defense Department is deploying a new technology that sniffs out deadly airborne chemicals and biological agents.

Known as the Remote Data Relay (RDR), the system uses a network of sensors to collect and analyze air samples around a military installation (or any other location that is pinpointed), according to officials at Sentel Corp., the company supplying the technology.

The Alexandria, Va.-based engineering company connects hundreds of disparate sensors in remote locations to a center where air testing is analyzed and monitored.

Using RDR's software, officials can monitor the sensors from a central command post or remote sites without sending anyone into harm's way. The network is intended as an instant alarm for people who may already have been exposed to a deadly weapon, not a way to stop an ongoing biological attack.

"The whole point of biodetection is detection for treatment," said James Garrett, Sentel's founder, president and chief executive officer.

Once poisonous agents are detected, officials can warn people to get inoculated or treated immediately. In the case of smallpox exposure, for example, people have about four days to get a vaccination that will prevent an outbreak.

Now in use at various places worldwide, Sentel's technology is used by the military to protect "high profile" locations and people, Garrett said. He declined to say where the system is used, or even if it was deployed during the recent war in Iraq. However, he said it can detect at least 10 chemical and biological agents.

That's a far cry from the past. During World War I, soldiers were issued primitive gas masks and brought pigeons into battle to help detect gas. If the birds died, it was a warning that the enemy had released toxins into the battlefield.

Charles McQueary, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for science and technology, told Congress in May that biological attacks are among the most serious threats facing the United States. In fact, President Bush's 2004 budget request includes a major increase in funding to develop bioterrorism countermeasures to protect the population.

McQueary said it is imperative to provide "state-of-the-art, high-performance, low-operating-cost systems to rapidly detect and mitigate the consequences of the release of biological and chemical agents."

There is a simple reason why biological weapons are feared, according to a top official for the Naval Surface Warfare Center who declined to be identified.

"It is cheaper to manufacture a biological weapon than a chemical or nuclear weapon," the official said.

This is why the government is keeping a close eye on American cities and ports to ensure that they are protected from biological terrorism.

"We must prevent catastrophic attacks against the American people that could involve chemical, biological or nuclear materials," said Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "Every major city in America should have detection devices and specialized equipment to neutralize the effects of a chemical attack."

Although it might be good business to deploy Sentel's technology nationwide, Garrett acknowledged that it is not a practical idea. Public health and law enforcement officials have to make calculated decisions on where to place the technological tool. "You can't really afford to have biodetectors everywhere," he said.

It is possible to target the places that are high-risk and put the system in place there. Sentel was responsible for providing biological protection in 1993 at President Clinton's gala inaugural festivities at the former US Air Arena. More recently, it was deployed in Washington, D.C., for a major NATO event. Following the attack on USS Cole in Yemen, it's been used to detect contamination at seaports of debarkation.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is ratcheting up its own efforts at biodetection. President Bush has proposed Project BioShield, which is moving through Congress and would spur development of large amounts of vaccines to treat smallpox, anthrax, Ebola, plague and other pathogens. It also would allow the Food and Drug Administration to authorize the widespread use of experimental drugs in the case of a bioterrorist attack.

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Sensor integration

As concerns rise over bioterrorism threats, some federal agencies are turning to Sentel Corp. for chemical and biological defense technology. A popular tool in the company's arsenal is the Remote Data Relay, which integrates sensors that analyze the air quality for toxins in a network. Using RDR's Command Post software, personnel can monitor sensors from a central or remote location.

The RDR consists of a radio modem, Ethernet connection and a personal computer, all packaged in a case the size of a breadbox. RDR runs off of various power sources, such as a utility power line or 12- or 24-volt battery pack, or from a vehicle's DC electrical system. By plugging in cables, as many as 11 devices can be connected to a single RDR. Forty RDRs can be connected to the command post to configure a network of over 400 remote sensors.

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