Drexel project to create camera to "see" biothreat signatures

A project is under way at Drexel University to create a new camera that could be used to detect gases emitted during the manufacture of biological and chemical terror agents.

The camera, known as hyperspectral imaging, works by finding spectral signatures, which are the precise color or mix of component colors from the creation of a bioterror agent.

The color of gasses are typically too faint to be seen by the human eye, but hyperspectral imaging is able to determine precise wavelengths that carry specific colors and see the gasses by turning on filters that look for specific colors of gasses.

Drexel associate professor Adam Fontecchio told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the camera would need to have dozens of different filters - each one a slightly different color - to detect a target reflecting a specific mix of colors.

Spectral signatures have already been utilized in the detection of camouflaged tanks hidden beneath trees by distinguishing differences in green that are indistinguishable to the human eye. In the private sector, spectral signatures are used to identify skin cancers, diseased poultry and invasive plant species.

Fontecchio, the head of the hyperspectral imaging project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has collaborated with a Optra Inc., a high-tech firm based in Massachusetts, to create the lightweight device that would be small enough to mount on an unmanned surveillance plane.

The hyperspectral project, currently in its second phase with a two year, $750,000 federal grant split between Optra and Drexel, began when Optra discovered Fontecchio's work in a literature search and urged him to join with them in applying for a grant from the Department of Energy.