Cities are huge market for military's biochemical detectors

Sensors could protect public places, government facilities

Equipment now being deployed by the coalition forces in Kuwait and Iraq to detect chemical or biological agents may be used routinely in U.S. cities in the not too distant future, according to government and industry officials.

As the war unfolded last month, U.S. ground troops fielded several new systems to protect against deadly mustard gas or nerve agents. At press time, no such attack had occurred, but the war appears far from over, and the threat remained palpable.

The military services are the largest customers for chemical, biological and radiological sensors, but industry officials are hopeful that a market will emerge among first responders in cities and counties throughout the nation as part of a homeland defense strategy.

Chemical, biological and radiological detection "is one of the most important parts of our defense against attacks," said Jim Wrightson, vice president of strategic planning for corporate strategic development, Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md.

Yet the market for these detectors and sensors remains in its infancy, Wrightson said. "We see that market emerging but not yet materializing," he said.

He said the detectors and sensors used by the military would suit the needs of first responders in the United States. Whereas the military might get by with individual detectors, cities and counties are more likely to require systems that rely on a network of sensors to protect government facilities or public places, he said.

The detectors and sensors on the market today range from small, handheld devices to products the size of outdoor grills, according to industry officials. These sensors can be deployed in temporary situations for special events, such as football games, or installed permanently in public places, such as subways, they said.

When an alarm sounds, emergency personnel have the option to collect a sample for testing, quarantine an area or evacuate it. The most sophisticated detectors and sensors on the market can provide data on wind speed and direction of the contaminant, as well as indicate when the area becomes safe again.

Lockheed Martin has provided a biological early warning system to the Air Force known as the Bio-Aerosol Warning System. It is essentially a network of remote sensors tied to a base station that provides an early warning system for an area or building.

"It is very likely that technology would suit the needs of first responders in the state and local market," Wrightson said.

The Army has deployed two types of systems in Iraq. One type is known as a point detector. It can test individuals, equipment or nearby locations for possible contamination.

The most ubiquitous of the point detectors is a small, handheld device known as the M22 Automatic Chemical Agent Detection Alarm. The device, which costs $10,000 per unit, was developed for the Army by BAE Systems Plc of Farnborough, U.K., according to Army officials.

The device can be used by soldiers at the company level to detect mustard gas or nerve agents up to several hundred yards away. The M22 replaces the M8 Chemical Detection Alarm used in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. While the M8 registered frequent false alarms, the M22 has an almost negligible false alarm rate, according to Army officials.

"The M22 Automatic Chemical Agent Alarm is light years beyond the M8 Chemical Detection Alarm," said Lt. Col Rudy Burwell, an Army spokesman.

Another type of system is called a stand-off system. The Army's current stand-off system used in Iraq is known as the M21 Remote Sensing Chemical Agent Alarm. Phase one of the system was developed by General Dynamics Corp. of Falls Church, Va., and Henschel Wehrpechnik of Kassel, Germany. Phase two was developed by General Motors Defense, now a unit of General Dynamics, Burwell said.

Although the M21 system has not been in production since 1996, a next-generation procurement would require $5 million to cover engineering, production development and test validation efforts for 24 months, plus an additional $17.5 million for a minimum procurement of 100 units, officials said.

The system is deployed in the field either on a tripod or atop a Humvee or the XM93 Fox NBC reconnaissance vehicle, Burwell said. The system is typically deployed in a fixed position at the brigade level by a nuclear, biological and chemical infantry 5 kilometers away and is capable of marking areas contaminated by nuclear or chemical attack. He declined to say how many of the systems the Army currently has deployed in Iraq.

Like many companies fielding chemical, biological and radiological detectors and sensors, Lockheed Martin has invested heavily in the opportunity with less than satisfying results. Still, the company is not retreating from the opportunity.

"We are sticking with it and moving forward," Wrightson said. "We hope to be there as the market emerges."

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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