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US Army Drones Detect Biological and Chemical Pollutants

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deep-purple-3A team at the U.S Army has built a technology that can detect biological and chemical air pollution using drones.

Air pollution is a serious problem in numerous cities around the world. In some of the world’s metropolitan areas, such as Beijing and London, it is often that citizens can actually see the smog. This is quite an extreme situation of course, but it is far from being the only problematic one.

In fact, some argue that the invisible pollutants are much more harmful, simply because “if we see it, we can avoid it”.

Despite the numerous efforts, vehicles are not becoming cleaner fast enough, and polluting factories are not being replaced with green alternatives fast enough. As a result, lung and heart problems are taking the lives of millions without them even knowing or ever seeing the cause.

A team of scientists at the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center (ECBC), decided to explore robust, easy to operate, yet very accurate and rapid means for monitoring these invisible threats. They put to the test an advanced unmanned vehicle technology (a.k.a. drones), equipped with sensors, which can detect chemical and biological agents in the air.

During the so called S/K Challenge, which is an event held every year by the US Army, various agencies could showcase and test their latest pollution detection technology. A cloud of known chemical and biological agents is released, so that the abilities of the various sensors can be tested.

A particularly interesting pair of sensors made a huge impression. These were the Joint Chemical Agent Detector and the Tactical Biological Generation II Detector (TACBIO), mounted on board of the unmanned ground vehicle -Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System (MDARS), and the quadcopter drone- Deep Purple.

The special feature of the drone was its air frame, which is made of printed circuit boards. These ensure a real-time communication between operators within a 2 mile (3.2 km) radius. The data on the movement and concentrations of the agents are transferred and stored in a central information sharing system. The system works with a common operating language and can be accessed by all parties involved.

There are a few challenges, of course. This communication system still needs fine tuning, in order to ensure fast and effective data-transfer flow. In addition, the sensor detecting biological agents is a little bit too large for Deep Purple, and therefore it is restricted to MDARS.

Alan Samuels, the leader of the team at ECBC, says that they are learning from the experiences and mistakes, and next year we can expect something even better.

Image (c) ECBC, US Army

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