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Special Assignment: "Sensing Danger" aired Thursday, Dec. 13, 2001 at 11 p.m.
It's a monitoring system that started aimed at the environment: Find pollution and polluters through a large system of tiny soda-cracker sized detection devices.
Each device is able to sense when the air or water is dirty, and send that information back to a computer through a wireless signal. Then came Sept. 11, and suddenly pollution wasn't our biggest threat.
"Our ideals have changed dramatically," said professor Mike Sailor, of UC San Diego's Engineering Department.
Sailor is one of the researchers at the forefront of a California early terrorist strike warning system. It's a system that would be able to detect sarin gas in a subway or anthrax blowing off the back end of a terrorist's truck.
Right now, to detect a sarin gas attack or find anthrax spores, you'd need to take an air sample, bring it to a lab and have it analyzed.
"What you would like to do is have that lab shrunk down to the size of a chip and place is everywhere and it would only cost a few pennies," Sailor said.
Before you think this is too futuristic to work, you should know that a system almost just like it already exists. The TriNet early-warning earthquake system now links hundreds of monitoring stations to a central computer.
When an earthquake strikes, those monitors send back to the computer, in real time, just how much shaking they are experiencing. The computer then determines how much damage there is and where.
That information is vital to emergency officials like Los Angeles' Ellis Stanley, who can then determine where he needs to send rescue crews.
"So if you have a map showing damage at 5300 Adams, that's where you'll send your teams?" Griffin asked.
"Absolutely," Stanley replied.
The California Information and Technology Project would do almost the same thing, only for man-made threats -- detecting biological, chemical and radiation attacks instantly. That gives us the protection of knowing what we've been attacked with, so that rescue crews can more quickly determine how to fight back.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 15, 2001