A US startup has created a handheld computing device weighing less than half a kilogram that can quickly detect trace amounts of chemicals such as narcotic drugs or those used to make explosives.
Running Windows CE, the US$8,500 Seeker CDU from DetectaChem is being adopted by soldiers, police, customs officials and others trying to track down terrorists or drug dealers.
The Seeker is not a real-time threat detector, but a powerful investigative tool, according to DetectaChem founder and CEO, Vaughn Clift.
"It can't tell you if there is a bomb on the kitchen table, but it can tell you if someone built a bomb on that kitchen table," he said.
That's useful as terrorists and insurgents continue to learn to bypass conventional threat detectors. For instance, explosives used in the 2005 London bombings carried out by Islamic terrorist groups used "chemicals that produced no vapor" so that neither "sniffer device nor dog" could detect them, Clift said.
Or take Iraq, where powerful homemade bombs known as IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) have killed more than 1,700 US solders.
IEDs are assembled with cheap common elements such as the guts of a cell phone, which is attached to an IED and then dialed to set off an electrical spark as a trigger. Usually smaller than a coffee can, IEDs can be hidden inside small, innocuous items -- "even a dead animal," Clift said -- to elude detection.
"The best we can do is act like detectives and trace these things" in order to prevent future occurrences, he said.
Resembling a PDA, the Seeker can process samples taken from suspects -- by swiping the fingers or clothing -- in less than a minute, rather than having to send them back to a lab, which could let a suspect walk away.
"I could have a cup of coffee with someone from the Aryan Nation and swipe that cup down right away," he said.
Explosive chemicals such as TNT, nitroglycerin and HMX, are "very sticky. They're like black ink toner. They get everywhere," Clift said. That allows the Seeker to detect trace amounts of explosive chemicals from items touched by people who can be up to ten degrees of separation from the person actually making a bomb, Clift said.
DetectaChem was started in the wake of the 2005 London bombings by Clift, an Australian medical doctor who formerly worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston helping create devices used to measure chemicals in the blood and urine of astronauts.
The US Air Force has signed a contract with DetectaChem and is evaluating the device, as well as the South Korean and Malaysian customs departments, he said.
The Seeker is also generating strong interest among Muslim countries. The reason, says Clift, is that dogs are considered dirty by tradition-minded Muslims, and their use to sniff out drugs or explosives can be offensive.
The Seeker is going through evaluation by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Certification will open up its potential usage by many U.S. law enforcement groups, Clift said.
Local laws permitting, evidence gathered by the Seeker can be used to provide probable cause and search warrants, he said.
Clift claimed many other groups are testing or using the device, but declined to release their names for security reasons.
Though DetectaChem is aiming the Seeker at government, police and military groups, it also says on its Web site that the Seeker "is now affordable enough to be carried by...just about anyone."
In New York City, site of the 9/11 attacks, that could run afoul of a pending law that would require civilians or companies to get police-issued permits to use "atmospheric, chemical and radiological detectors" in order to avoid "excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety."
Scenes from the war on drugs
The Seeker is less proficient at detecting narcotics than explosives, admits Clift. It has a hard time differentiating between marijuana and hashish because it looks for the same active chemical, THC, in both.
That's a big difference. In some Muslim countries, hashish usage is tolerated and widespread, while marijuana is illegal and can be useful in connecting authorities to hardcore dealers or even terrorists who finance their activities by dealing, he said.
Also, traces of drugs can be too ubiquitous to be useful. Marijuana or hashish, for example, or even cocaine, which Clift says is found on a surprisingly high percentage of twenty-dollar bills.
One big reason is that some of the chemical techniques to detect drugs haven't changed much in the last century.
"It's not much different to what Sherlock Holmes was using to look for evidence of morphine," he said.