WPI Mathematician Creates Chemical Sensors For Army Soldiers

WORCESTER, Mass. (WBZ NewsRadio) — A WPI mathematician is working with the U.S. Army to develop tiny, wearable chemical sensors that help them detect harmful chemicals quickly.

WBZ NewsRadio's Laurie Kirby spoke with Randy Paffenroth, an associate professor of mathematical sciences, computer science, and data science at WPI, about the project, on which he served as principal investigator.

"We are creating a combination of classic and new math that allows a chemical sensing system to warn a soldier or other first responder early and accurately if there's something dangerous in the environment," Paffenroth said.

WPI chemical sensor

WPI Mathematician Randy Paffenroth. (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

Paffenroth was awarded a three-year, $169,000 award for the sensor project from the Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, and is now the co-principal investigator on a $1.8 million award to continue it.

The sensor itself is thumbnail-sized. Each sensor inside the device detects different combinations of multiple molecules, the school said in a release—"one might detect diesel fumes and a specific chemical agent, while another might detect diesel fumes and humidity. The results are combined to give a more complete and accurate assessment of the chemicals in the environment."

WPI chemical sensor

One of the chemical sensors. (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

"The sensor is meant to be very small, very inexpensive, something that you could print and put on every uniform," he said. "The idea is to combine up these very leading-edge sensors along with leading-edge data science to provide the wearer of these sensors the ability to know right away if they're in a dangerous environment."

Paffenroth said what's important about the sensor is that it combines a fast-working alarm with a low rate of false alarms.

"One, you want to alarm quickly," Paffenroth said. "It's not very helpful if the soldier enters a dangerous environment, and it takes them five minutes to know if they're in a dangerous environment. However, if you enter an environment and the alarm's always going off, and it goes off when there's nothing to worry about, then the soldier will stop using it."

Listen below for the full interview with Paffenroth.

WBZ NewsRadio's Laurie Kirby (@LaurieWBZ) reports

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