by Al Sacco

GPS and the War on Terror: Tracking and Detecting “Dirty Bombs” With Mobile Phones

Jan 25, 20083 mins
Data Center

A group of researchers from Purdue University are working with the state of Indiana to develop a system that would utilize global positioning system (GPS) enabled mobile phones to detect and track nuclear weapons like “dirty bombs,”

according to the Purdue News Service.

Such a system could turn everyday citizens into powerful tools in the war on terror. People would simply need to carry a GPS-enabled mobile device with an embedded radiation detector and an associated software application. The phones would take it from there: If the special sensors embedded within the devices detected radiation, the software would first determine if the levels were abnormal and then transmit alerts to a data center if so. The appropriate authorities could be notified from there. Users wouldn’t even know that their phones sent alerts, and the system would be “intelligent” enough to ignore common sources of radiation like hospital X-ray machines.

It could also help pinpoint the location of a radiation source. For instance, if a car with a dirty bomb or other source of radiation drove through an area with many cell phone users, the embedded sensors would individually send signals to the command center so authorities could track the source, according to the article. The sensors would begin sending alerts as soon as they detected any abnormal radiation so the data center would be alerted long before radiation levels became significant. And it’s impossible to shield a nuclear weapon’s radiation completely without making it immobile, Jere Jenkins, director of the university’s radiation labs in its School of Nuclear Engineering, told the Purdue News Service.

Jere Jenkins (left) and Ephraim Fischbach, of Purdue University

Millions of mobile devices like smartphones already have GPS functionality, and the number of GPS-enabled handsets on the market is expected to more than double over the coming five years, according to technology market research firm ABI Research.

Tiny solid-state radiation detectors are already commercially available, the news service reports, and the additional circuitry needed to make them work within a smartphone wouldn’t add much bulk, Purdue physics Professor Ephraim Fischbach said.

Andrew Longman, the scientist who developed the software for the system, told the Perdue News Service, “The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected in such an area.”

Longman, Jenkins and Fischbach, piloted the system on the university’s campus last fall, the Perdue News Services reports. A test source of radiation far weaker than what a dirty bomb would produce was set up and sealed to protect passersby, and a fleet of participants wondered around with detectors. The team discovered they could detect the source from a range of 15 feet, and they’re currently working on commercializing the system.