Our smartphones can already surf the Net, take photos and videos, play games, and even make phone calls, so why not... have them smell the air? That what America’s Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate would like to see happen. The Cell-All initiative would see cell phones equipped with a sensor capable of detecting deadly chemicals. In the event of a terrorist chemical attack, the device could conceivably save numerous lives.

The chemical-sniffing chip would cost less than a dollar, and would always be working in the background, much like an antivirus program on a computer. If it detected what it perceived as a toxic chemical within its immediate vicinity, it would alert the user and/or a central station, depending on the substance in question. Alerts sent to the station would include the time of day, the phone’s location, and the name of the chemical that has been detected. An individual alert might indicate a false positive, but if the station received many simultaneous alerts from the same area, then an evacuation could be in order.

Homeland Security is currently working on a proof-of-concept study, to see just how workable the concept would be. Teams from Qualcomm, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Rhevision Technology are participating in the program.

The Cell-All sensor would only be active in the phones of people who opted into the program, and alerts would be sent anonymously - conspiracy theorists, of course, might suspect otherwise.