Army scientists use smartphones for biological detection

Scientists with the U.S. Army are developing new technologies to support soldiers, including smartphones that can identify and detect biological and chemical substances.

The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command is working on the next generation of technology to protect both soldiers and civilians from unknown biological or chemical agents.

"The biggest threat is always going to be the emerging pathogen, the things you hear about on the news where pools of disease pop up randomly," Calvin Chue, a research biologist with the RDECOM, said. "We have soldiers deployed around the world. Being able to develop tools and technologies to pick up those unknown hazards before (soldiers) are exposed to them is a large measure of what we do."

The BioSciences Division of the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is researching sensors embedded with smartphones that can identify suspicious materials.

"We're trying to develop new kinds of sensors that a soldier could use to amplify their knowledge in the field," Chue said. "For example, a soldier might go to a new area and plant 30 or 40 different chemical and biological sensor devices. They would be tied back to a smartphone or tablet that is providing the user interface display. That is a new modality, and it expands the soldier's senses."

The smartphones could be used for on-site diagnostics and relaying results to a command post or laboratory. The devices would also reduce the size and weight of current detectors.

Researchers with RDECOM are also working on a paper detection system that changes color in the presence of certain odors and using three-dimensional printer technology to develop human organs for biological and chemical agent testing.

"This may allow us to grow new kinds of sensors," Chue said. "We would like to grow an immune organ that could respond to chemical and biological insults. It's probably at least several decades before it has a practical application. It's the kind of long-term science that we're making an investment in because it will benefit the service member in the end."