OAK RIDGE, Tenn., May 14 (UPI) -- The tens of thousands of cell phone base stations across the country could host a network of sensors to detect and track airborne chemical, biological or radiological attacks, Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers said Tuesday.
A proposal called SensorNet involves chemical and biological detectors being developed for the U.S. Army, as well as existing software for predicting the size and movement of contaminant clouds, said Richard Reid, a group leader in the Systems Engineering and Technology Group at the laboratory. Reid explained that a meeting with a cell-phone technology provider just prior to Sept. 11 gave birth to the idea of linking detectors through the cellular network's monitoring equipment. The terrorist attacks speeded up the development process.
Detector technology can identify chemical agents in less than 30 seconds and spot biological agents in less than a minute in most cases, Reid told United Press International. Radiation detectors also are envisioned in the SensorNet plan, he said.
"We would have access to almost every single (cell phone tower) site in the United States," Reid said. "Our goal is, from detection through identification to getting the word to whatever command and control center you have, to take less than five minutes."
Using existing sites has several advantages, Reid told UPI, starting with avoiding the need to go through local licensing procedures. The cell towers also have extremely accurate timekeeping capabilities SensorNet could tap into, simplifying the process of determining the initial release site and tracking the spread of contaminants, he said.
As with any early-warning system, Oak Ridge researchers have worked to eliminate the possibility of mistakenly identifying a contaminant where none exists, Reid said. Having a densely packed detector network in urban areas would help eliminate false positives or malicious false alarms. Isolated alarms that do not spread to other detectors would be easier to spot as anomalies in such a situation, he said.
The proposal could prove useful in some situations, but would not replace existing methods for spotting the most likely attacks, said Michael Powers, a research associate at the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington.
"I'd be skeptical of such an idea until the sensors are proven," Powers told UPI. "Small-scale trials would be fine, but they might point out shortcomings in the network."
For example, cell phone antennas almost always are outdoors, and most terrorism scenarios involve indoor release of chemical agents or microbes, he said. A lack of details on the detectors' biological agent capabilities means much more study is necessary, he said.
Part of the ongoing homeland security debate includes discussions over the best way to fund a detection network, Powers said. The emphasis today seems to be on creating hospital-based systems that track actual cases.
The one area where a SensorNet arrangement could shine, Powers explained, would be in case of an attack involving dispersal of radioactive elements, such as with an isotope-coated "dirty bomb." If terrorists spread the materials without explosives, such a network might be able to spot the attempt before it did much harm, he said.
(Reported by UPI Science Correspondent Scott R. Burnell in Washington)