To crack down on illegal drug labs, law enforcement officers often enlist the hyper-sensitive noses of our canine brethren. Some dogs can smell up to a thousand times better than humans, but a group of students at the University of North Texas (UNT) have created technology that can top that.
It all started eight months ago, when a group led by UNT lab director Guido Verbeck developed a portable mass spectrometer to analyze air quality. Affectionately named Membrane Inlet Mass Spectrometry, the system was quite bulky, so to make it portable, the team ripped out the passenger seat of a Ford Fusion Energi and stuck an array of computers and sensors inside. This way, the mobile science lab could easily roam the different boroughs of the Lone Star State, taking measurements over a large area.
Unbeknownst to them, they had created a tool that could be used to sniff out drug labs even better than a bloodhound.
The technology uses a string of gas analyzers and particle detectors crafted by Inficon of East Syracuse, and with a special “nose” intake built into the passenger side mirror, the plug-in hybrid can sniff out unique chemical signatures up to a quarter-mile away and determine their point of origin within 15 feet. Better yet, it does this silently and with complete discretion, keeping would-be Walter Whites in the dark and allowing the police to do their job.
“The car could just drive by it and keep moving down the road,” Verbeck told CBS DFW. “It’ll alert the officers there’s something going on at the house, and where the location is.”
To calibrate the spectrometer’s sensitivity, the UNT team set the baseline readings in Antartica, which has the cleanest air on Earth. The latest version is compact enough to fit inside a small handheld case, but at the time of this writing, it has not been picked up by any law enforcement agencies.