Today and Tomorrow: Approaching the Mythical Tricorder

When Wah Ming Chang, Chinese-American designer, sculptor, and artist, created the “tricorder” prop for the “Star Trek” series, reality was still decades away. Members of the Starfleet used the tricorder to scan for, analyze, and record data that they found at various new worlds throughout the universe as they explored unknown environments on planets “where no man had gone before.” Today, on Earth itself in the 21st century, new technologies are being created each year to combat existing and emerging threats. As 2012 approaches, multi-purpose hand-held devices to detect, identify, and document various toxins have become a new tricorder type of reality.

Before 2000, there were separate products for man-portable gas/vapor detection for the U.S. military and first-responder hazmat (hazardous materials) markets. However, since 2000, the needs of the two markets have been coming closer and closer together, and it seems probable that the requirements, capabilities, and uses of what were once considered two separate markets will merge sometime in the near future. In other words, what once was represented as green gear for military and yellow gear for hazmat responders is becoming the same for both. Following are a few of the probable results.

There will be broader protection from detectors. Traditionally, military units have focused on Chemical Warfare Agents (CWAs) as their primary threat, but many such units are starting to realize that casualties caused by a lack of oxygen, the presence of combustible gases, and/or toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) are much more likely. Increasingly, military units are provided not only CWA-specific detectors but also Confined Space Entry (CSE) detectors to provide safe entry into caves, industrial plants, and tunnels where common atmospheric conditions can kill. It is not overly difficult to take the next step to combine the capabilities of these two types of detectors into one device. For one thing, CWA detectors are now in their third and fourth generations. Moreover, “orthogonal” or multi-sensor products are increasingly being fielded to provide greater sensitivity and fewer false alarms in CWA detection. Adding sensors designed to cope with common CSE threats to CWA-capable detectors is the next logical step in this progression.

Greater gas/vapor selectivity also is probable. Historically, CWA detectors have actually been “classifiers” – in other words, they can readily discern nerve agents from blister agents in a military environment. However, they may not be able to determine the exact type of G-series agent present and/or might not perform well in urban environments in which a wide variety of chemical cross-sensitivities may be present. Developments in both differential-ion mobility spectroscopy (DMS) and pre-concentrators have the potential of providing much greater specificity from handheld technological systems and devices. These developments will in turn allow greater speciation of not only CWAs but also the most common TICs in both the military and urban environments. These developments will also open the door for use of these classification/speciation technologies in the industrial environment.

New reach-back and interoperability capabilities may be the next step. There is an old story about three blind men and an elephant. One blind man feels the elephant’s trunk and thinks that he has found a fire hose. Another touches the elephant’s foot and thinks that he has found a tree. The third blind man grabs hold of the elephant’s tail and thinks that he has found a whip. Obviously, none of the three blind men has a complete picture of the situation. The manufacturers of gas/vapor detection systems are increasingly building new wireless reach-back capabilities into their products so that the sensor readings in the field can be fed back to incident control in real time – giving decision makers the improved situational awareness needed to quickly “see the whole elephant.” Largely for that reason – and despite the fact that at least some manufacturers have fielded their own proprietary portable wireless networks – the next paradigm shift will in all likelihood be the development of TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) internet-based platform networks open to all.

Additional funding for versatile products seems likely. In view of the current federal budget battles, it also seems inevitable that, unless some major event leads to increased emphasis on homeland security grant funding in general, there will be less federal grant money available for the foreseeable future. The outlook will be worse for expensive single-use products, which simply will not be funded in this budget climate. However, companies that offer versatile products with multi-mission roles that cover the weapons of mass destruction and homeland security bases but still offer wider functionality have the greatest potential for continued growth. In the early days of grant funding, the top 50 or 100 items on a jurisdictional wish list often received funding. Nonetheless, in today’s climate of ever tighter budgets, many of even the top 10 items on an agency’s, or manufacturer’s, wish list may be unable to obtain funding. For that reason alone, making it to the top three of the wish list may well be not only the best way but perhaps the only way to obtain the funding needed – and product versatility will be the best way to get to that level. One obvious example: first- and second-generation CWA detectors are rarely if ever used by first responders – which means that not only would these detectors gather dust, but the skill sets of the individual users also would atrophy. And that means, in turn, that if and when a chemical attack does occur, neither the equipment nor the skill sets of the user will be capable of meeting the challenge both immediately and effectively.

Today, fortunately, there are an increasing number of versatile detectors that can be used in routine hazmat situations so that neither the detector nor the user will lack the experience needed. This trend will undoubtedly continue for some time to come. One example: the ChemPro100i can meet the rigorous demands required for CWA detection. But with the notable exception of the detection of organophosphate pesticides, there has been virtually no real use of the CWA detection capabilities in North America over the past few years. However, by adding to its capability to support routine hazmat operations – in addition to clandestine laboratory, overhaul, and other day-to-day activities – the product already has moved from a rarely used detector to a multi-use product.

Over the past decade, state and local jurisdictions have come to depend on federal grants to build up their detection capabilities. Nonetheless, there seems to be no doubt that additional tightening of the federal budget is likely, and there will be less grant funding available in general. However, grants will not completely disappear, and manufacturers who can demonstrate how their technologies – developed primarily for the CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) community – remain relevant in their daily operations will continue to be successful as users look for better and more versatile products to include in their hardware and software inventories.

Christopher Wrenn

Christopher Wrenn is the vice president of Americas sales for AEssense Corp., a Silicon Valley developer and manufacturer dedicated to providing innovative technological solutions for plant growers worldwide. Previously, he was senior director of sales and marketing for Environics USA, a provider of sophisticated gas and vapor detection solutions for the military, first responder, safety, and homeland security markets. He was also a key member of the RAE Systems team. He has extensive experience teaching gas and vapor detection and has been a featured speaker at more than 100 international conferences. He has written numerous articles, papers, and book chapters on gas/vapor detection and received the following awards: 2011 “Outstanding Project Team Award,” in recognition of outstanding service and dedication to the Real Time Detection Registry Team presented by the AIHA (American Industrial Hygiene Association) President; 2015, received the James H. Meidl “Instructor of the Year” award at The Continuing Challenge, Sacramento, CA presented by CA State Fire Marshal; and 2016, received the “Level A Award” from the International Hazardous Materials Response Team Conference “For your Leadership Service and Support to the Hazardous Response and Training Program.” He can be reached at



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