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Ambitious project finds new technique for locating illicit chemical sites


BRUSSELS – Tasked with developing novel methods for tracing the illicit use of chemicals — including explosive precursors and drug laboratories — one EU-funded security research project has found a possible solution: a remote network of vehicle mounted “stand-off” sensor hubs. This network could soon be passively distributed around urban environments in Europe by civilian vehicles, to silently map potential locations for later law enforcement intervention.

The collaborative R&D project in question is LOTUS (“localisation of threat substances in urban societies”). A 36-month long initiative led by the Swedish Defence Research Agency, FOI, LOTUS had a total budget of EUR 4.2 million, of which 74 percent came from the EU.

Though the bulk LOTUS’ work is highly sensitive and was concluded in December 2011, SECURITY EUROPE has seen an upcoming public report from the consortium, which we summarise here for our readers.

LOTUS was tasked with developing a low cost, low-manpower and automatic earl-warning detection method for localising potential illegal chemical sites — with narcotic drug laboratories and stockpiles of explosive precursor chemicals identified as priority targets.

To do this, the project’s research consortium developed a range of interchangeable remote sensor mounts. Functioning by passively sampling air that passes over a vehicle-mounted unit, these were capable of being fitted with a range of analysis techniques – including ion mobility spectrometer (IMS), infra-red absorption (IRA) and particle mobility –for detecting trace samples of relevant compounds.

The sensors were combined into two potential chemical detection configurations matching categories of illicit substance types, known as “libraries”. One library was developed for ammonia trace gases (ie. explosives precursor indicators), and the other for dopant chemicals from drug production. Both libraries were designed, theoretically, to be mounted in the same device simultaneously.

To validate its detection method, LOTUS carried out extensive urban trials of the vehicle-mounted sensor hubs in Ossendrecht (NL), Stockholm (SW), Helsinki (FIN) and Madrid (SP). According to these trials, air sampling techniques were generally effective at distances around 45 metres from a chemical concentration.

However, individual incidents of detection were heavily dependent on local wind conditions and relative chemical concentrations. For example, in one trial a trailer loaded heavily with illegal drugs was successfully detected at 100 metres. However, changing wind conditions meant a repeat test was not nearly as sensitive. The concentration of urban buildings and traffic flows were additional factors affecting detection distance.

The operational innovation of this vehicle mounted sampling technique is its ability to passively map an urban environment for trace chemical “hot spots”. Each sensor hub is equipped with GSM (for short-message texting) and GPS broadcast capability. They are thus able to remotely send regular reports of potential positive detections back to a central law-enforcement hub, with an accurate location and time attached.

Moreover, as the sensor system requires no interaction from an operator, the units could easily be widely distributed attached to civilian vehicles. High-intensity road users such as urban transport fleets could thus silently build up a chemical intensity awareness picture over a wide area, optimising the likelihood of pinpointing a potential target.

Looking forward, LOTUS has identified three further criteria that will need to coincide in order to deploy their new sensor concept:
• Developing a commercial sensor unit suitable for daily use without overbearing maintenance costs;
• Honing the substance libraries to reliably match the investigation interests of law enforcement;
• Identifying a pronounced demand from one or several end-users.

If these criteria are met, end-users could soon start mapping dense urban areas for potentially dangerous chemical laboratories, with an increased likelihood of catching terrorists and criminals red-handed with at-risk substances.

     THE UPSHOT: LOCUS has produced some impressive results, and its operational concept is both simple and effective.
However there remain some major questions to answer before its results can be commercialised. Most of these revolve around the sensor unit itself. For a start, the report is vague about the physical dimensions of the unit. Obviously, anything too large can not feasibly be mounted on the average van or taxi, so this is a frustrating omission. Just how big is it?
Also, a viable sensor unit will demand an absolute bare minimum of maintenance if it is be accepted by users. A key factor here is power consumption and battery life: regularly returning to a re-charge point could be prohibitive, so somehow allowing the vehicle to re-charge the device directly is probably essential.
Finally, although the consortium has consulted various advisory groups to avoid any potential ethical breaches, ultimately this system involves some public authority, presumably law enforcement agency, mounting GPS-capable devices onto public vehicles. Civil liberty protests could be a problem, thus end-users may need to focus very early on communication and “product presentation” to avoid this.
One such approach could be to play up the device’s drug detection capability rather than its counter-terrorism angle. Few would object to a tool that locates the drug factories of criminal gangs.

About Jonathan Dowdall

Jonathan Dowdall was policy analyst for SECURITY EUROPE from 2011-2012 and now works for the UK government. He can be reached at: jonathandowdall@googlemail.com

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