The device, designed by Dr. Guido Verbeck of the University of North Texas and East Syracuse-based INFICON, was originally intended to measure highway pollution and other environmental applications, Vice News reports. But Verbeck and his team quickly realized it "could be used to precisely determine the source of any unique chemical profile traveling through the air — including those associated with many types of drugs."
To test the device, Verbeck set up a
Breaking Bad play set fake mobile home meth lab and pumped "drug fumes" out of the air vents. The device was able to detect the fumes from a distance of a quarter-mile. "When certain types of chemical strains are detected, the computer kicks on and starts calculating where that strain is coming from," Verbeck told Vice News. "Within a matter of minutes, the location is pinpointed within a 4 percent error."
The device is essentially a more durable, road-ready version of a mass spectrometer that sits in the passenger seat of a hybrid sedan. The delicate instruments are isolated from the road thanks to an electromagnetic suspension system and air vent near the rearview mirror sucks in outside air through a small intake. Once an offending substance has been identified, the onboard computer calculates the location by measuring diffusion in different locations and accounting for weather factors like wind speed and temperature.
While the most practical application here would be to track down large-scale manufacturers of synthetic drugs, Verbeck says it could even be used to find something as mellow as a burning joint. Although drug-sniffing tech like this isn't out in the wild just yet, Verbeck believes a commercial version could cost as little as $80,00 to $100,000. Naturally, law enforcement agencies are excited by the prospect of car that could detect grow houses and meth labs simply by driving around a neighborhood, even if it could constitute an illegal search and seizure under the fourth amendment.
While legal experts say its anyone's guess how a court would rule on the matter, one DEA agent quoted by Vice News didn't seem to see a problem here. "If it's in the air, it's like the air waves," Special Agent Patterson explained. "They're not owned by anybody."