On Friday, the S&T said that it has begun actively funding a project that has been in the research phase since 2007 to develop cell phones equipped with sensors capable to detecting dangerous chemicals.
The DHS directorate said that it's pursuing Cooperative Research and Development Agreements with the four mobile phone makers.
The project, called Cell-All, aims to deploy low-cost sensor chips -- less than $1 each -- in mobile phones and to coordinate mass air sampling through mobile network carriers.
NASA, Qualcomm, and Rhevision Technology -- an In-Q-Tel-funded optics company that has developed chemical-sensing silicon -- have been working on the core technology.
The principal benefit of "crowd-sourcing human safety," as the government puts it, would be to reduce false alarms. A single report of chlorine gas from a subway might be the result of an error or anomaly. Multiple reports would be a sign of a potentially serious situation, enough to prompt warnings to phone users in the vicinity and to alert authorities.
The S&T insists that phone subscribers will have to opt-in to the network and that data transmissions will be anonymous. "Privacy is as important as technology," said Stephen Dennis, program manager of Cell-All, in a statement. "After all, for Cell-All to succeed, people must be comfortable enough to turn it on in the first place."
Detection, identification, and notification in the Cell-All system is supposed to take place within 60 seconds. Users supposedly will be able to choose their preferred form of incident notification: vibration, noise, text message or phone call.
The S&T envisions the system as a way to defend against terrorism as well a way to avert incidents like one reported last year in which a woman near Swansea, South Carolina was killed by an invisible cloud of ammonia that had leaked from a local chemical plant.
In December last year, S&T led a study with the help of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to better understand the dispersal of smoke or accidentally released chemicals in the MBTA subway system.