Machine Design

Sniffing out danger

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories developed a device that rides on small aerial drones to detect potential nerve gas and blister-agent attacks on cities and military bases.

Sandia researcher Doug Adkins observes the wind-tunnel performance of SnifferSTAR, a device intended to fly on drones and immediately detect airborne nerve gases and blister agents.

The patented device, called SnifferSTAR, is a series of tiny sensors on top of a microprocessor board smaller than a credit card. The forward motion of the aerial drone forces air through it. Material in the air is absorbed and concentrated. It is then desorbed and temporarily sticks to thick strips of coating material. The coating strips sit on a quartz surface that vibrates at preset frequencies when minute amounts of electricity pass through it. The mass of incoming stuck particles changes the frequency of each strip's vibration. The processor on the SnifferSTAR module checks the altered frequency data, beaming it back to a main data processor on the ground where it's compared against a library of patterns created by a range of gases. "We have very few false positives," says Sandia researcher Doug Adkins. "The device ignores most common interferents," he adds. The sampling process repeats every 20 sec. The inrush of air clears the device sensors for the next reading.

Says Adkins, "Rapid analysis is currently not available with any other package near this size." The device may also find use in or near ventilation systems of buildings, or by adding a small pump, on posts surrounding military bases.

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