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A drone-based micro-sensor technology will identify explosives from the air. Professor Otto Gregory of the College of Engineering at the University of Rhode Island has developed drone deployed sensors that can identify explosive materials, particles from a potentially deadly virus, and illegal drugs at the part-per-quadrillion level – single-molecule detection.

“The platform is broad-based, so you can apply it to lots of different venues, with lots of different end-users,” said Gregory. 

The research is largely funded by the Department of Homeland Security, as well as by other government agencies. “This project started as a DARPA-funded project mainly to look at toxic gases — threats that would be used in gas warfare, and when I say gases, chemical weapons,” said Gregory on GoLocal LIVE (golocalprov.com). 

Gregory said the directive from the federal funding agencies was to look at “threats that could be put on airplanes, put in public transportation venues, subways trains — all those venues that were targets.”

Gregory said the Department of Defense may be interested in using it to monitor wounds in soldiers. If a soldier or first responder suffered an open wound from shrapnel, Gregory’s sensors could help determine if the wound became infected. The development can also detect roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs). 

According to Gregory, the U.S. Coast Guard has shown an interest in using the technology to “sniff out” illegal drugs being smuggled into the United State aboard ships.

“By decreasing the thermal mass of the sensor, we’ve decreased the amount of power required to run the sensor,” said Gregory. “We started with a thermal mass on the order of grams. Now the thermal mass of our sensor is on the order of micrograms.”

He says one of the keys to making a device as small and powerful as Gregory’s is to find the right battery. “We have partnered with a company that makes very thin, low-mass batteries in Colorado called ITN Energy Systems,” Gregory said. “They make lithium batteries that are no thicker than a piece of paper. The process has been about finding the right partners, which helps us improve our catalysts and improve our sensor platform.”