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Covering the Bases

It's peanuts, Cracker Jack and sensors, as government researchers test their all-in-one chemical defense system at a California ballpark.
By Andrew Price
Wu says the exact nature of RDCDS's communications modes must remain a secret, to prevent terrorists from potentially intercepting or interfering with the signals. "What I can tell you is that there are definitely different types of information that travel through the channels," Wu says. "They're prioritized and [channeled] through the most efficient way of getting them to the central command station."

The remote detectors are placed in strategic locations inside and around the venue. The ground sensors can be spread out as far as required, limited only by the range of the wireless network, says Replogle. The detectors' ability to sniff out hazardous materials depends on a substance's characteristics, the device's intrinsic sensitivity and local environmental conditions. "It all depends on which way the wind is blowing," Wu says. "Imagine yourself as a person that's smelling a cigar—the box smells it basically whenever you smell it."

Detector deployment requires careful advance planning.
Detector deployment requires careful advance planning. "Wind conditions come into play, so we look at meteorological conditions," says Replogle. "Some modeling is required to help you decide how many detectors you would need, how you would set up your array and how much time you would have to respond."

The entire system is designed to function as an ad hoc, self-healing, self-optimizing network using multiple wireless modes. "You basically get your system out there, you set it up, you turn it on and it configures itself," says Replogle. The system also incorporates video surveillance cameras designed to visually confirm the detectors' findings and to keep a lookout for any attempts to alter or damage the equipment. "Most importantly, it helps us see if any people are actually in distress," says Replogle.

"Certainly, as things get smaller and detectors become more prevalent, I would anticipate that we would be able to continuously add to this system."—Bill Replogle
Measuring Background Noise
Although RDCDS offers a formidable, redundant detection arsenal, the system can still be tricked, sometimes quite easily and innocently. An everyday cleaning agent used to scrub a nearby bathroom, for instance, might cause the system to generate a chlorine attack warning. Such "background noise" is the main obstacle the researchers are fighting against, and it was the major reason why the test was held inside a packed ballpark. "It's impossible to reproduce inside a laboratory the type of real-world environment that exists at a stadium," says Wu.

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