By on May 5, 2016

2014-ford-fusion-energi-01

Call it the Ford Narc.

In the near future, police cruisers could detect drug labs just by sniffing the air as they drive down a street, CBC DFW reports (via Autoblog), all thanks to a device built by a team from the University of North Texas.

The highly sensitive mass spectrometer, calibrated in the clean air climes of Antarctica, was installed in the front seat of a Ford Fusion Energi sedan eight months ago.

Originally designed to test air quality, the device — built with the help of Inficon of Syracuse, New York — is now tasked with detecting something much more clandestine than simple smog. Chemicals used in drug making — meth, especially — waft out of houses and apartments whether their owners like it or not, and the device can pinpoint that chemical signature from a quarter-mile away.

“The car could just drive by it and keep moving down the road,” Dr. Guido Verbeck told the CBS affiliate. “It’ll alert the officers there’s something going on at the house, and where the location is.”

Given the sensitive nature of the equipment, it’s easy to see why the team chose a plug-in hybrid for their test vehicle.

A fine-tuned piece of technology is of little use if the operator can’t decipher test results, so the team whipped up software that analyzes the data and tells a police officer exactly what the car is smelling.

“The operator, or the tactical person using it, does not have to know anything about mass spec, they just know that this is bad,” Verbeck said.

As useful a tool as this could be for law enforcement, the test contraption was too bulky for use inside a police cruiser. The team then miniaturized it, so it could fit into a portable case.

Police forces have a habit of spending money on things that make enforcement and crime-solving easier, so the makers (and eventual marketers) of this technology are sitting on a gold mine.

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46 Comments on “Meth Dealers’ Worst Nightmare – a Ford That Sniffs Out Drugs (and Gets Great Mileage)...”


  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Cool stuff!

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Yeah, I remember the story about this on the local news here in DFW. Meth labs are nasty and dangerous; you might as well tear down a house that’s been used as a meth lab, as it’ll never truly be clean again. It’ll be interesting to see how long this takes to get into volume production. And kudos to the guys at UNT that developed it.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      I have seen some return to market and included in the docs are papers from the health dept stating that it met the standards for being clean after meth manufacturing. That said I’d never touch one and the reality is that the people who have bought the ones I watched were able to buy at a low price because of that stigma.

      The other thing I’m seeing a lot of in the market today are former Pot grow houses. Legalization has at least made a huge dent in the black market so they close up shop and the house makes it to the market.

      One case is pretty interesting, the house is one that I knew the owner from 20 years ago and had been there a couple of times. Much later someone else I knew lived down the street from that house. Occasionally when rounding the corner near that house I’d get a faint whiff of weed. Then a couple of years later I went to show it to a customer. Everything was normal until we got to the garage. There were pull down stairs to the attic space. We pulled them down and there was wiring and boxes all down both sides, some with fixtures and bulbs.

      When looking for a places in a not too far away college town and one that had a rep back in the day I’ve seen quite a few. So the joke between my wife, daughter and I was where is the room to grow your weed. At first my daughter thought I was joking until we saw as many houses where it was totally obvious. Big steel building at back of property with a heavily insulated room built inside with big ventilation systems, water and floor drains. A garage in a fairly dense residential area that had a light fixtures 3′ on center in the two car garage and more in the attic space above with the pull down stairs.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        A friend of ours lives in a house that was once used as a marijuana grow op. We were there visiting and I noticed my GPS lost signal in their house. I made a joke about it and she sheepishly admitted to it. The roof and walls had extra insulation and shielding to block infrared scanning.

      • 0 avatar
        sgeffe

        Are the chemical remnants just bad to be around, or can what’s left actually go “boom” like an active lab?

    • 0 avatar
      dswilly

      I think to be re-inhabited they need to remove all of the sheet rock and insulation down to the bare interior framing. They then coat the framing with a special paint or chemical to seal out any residue or whatever is left behind.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        That is my understanding too, though I’ve seen one, or at least pictures of one where they allowed the wood floor to be retained though I bet the requirement was to reseal it. There was some mention of hard surfaces being cleaned and not necessarily replaced.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Two words.

    Warrantless search. It will take years to wind through the courts if this technology becomes widely adopted before they reach that conclusion, but that is the end game.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Silly frog, you still believe in the rule of law.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      If it seeps outside of your house, now it’s out in the public. I think it’ll be less problematic than using thermal imaging to find houses with grow lights for marijuana, since they’re scanning what’s inside the house, not outside it, like escaping fumes.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      This seems to be a way of gaining probable cause for a warrant, not a warrantless search. Police *can* rummage through trash outside of a home to find evidence; why would this be any different?

      • 0 avatar
        mshenzi

        I agree that this sounds like a route to requesting a warrant. No doubt it’ll get tested in court, but it’s easy to imagine it standing up to legal challenge if it doesn’t pop out false positives. For those who’ve heard more about it: can it really pinpoint ‘that’ house, and not the neighbor’s by mistake, especially on a breezy day? Kicking down the wrong door would be bad on many fronts.

        • 0 avatar
          Jeff Weimer

          I agree. That’s a concern police have to take into account when gathering evidence for a warrant. I assume it would be better as a part of a more comprehensive set of evidence for a warrant, not just “trolling” for meth labs. Although it *would* be more useful as that in a low housing density area.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      FWIW, a few years ago, the state of Illinois had already attempted something similar using the same criteria as warrantless dog sniffs, but with someone’s residence instead of a car. It made it all the way up to the SCOTUS, which struck it down by the narrowest of margins (4-5).

      OTOH, if the device is more sensitive and accurate than a drug dog (and it appears to be), there would no problem with cops just trolling around a high crime area, pinpointing a vehicle, then pulling it over with one of those pretextual traffic stops that seem to be so popular with cops these days and the cop bringing in a dog at that point.

      So they might not be able to use it for houses, but the sky would be the limit with cars since it pretty much is just an electronic drug dog.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    I can just see the headlines when the DEA kicks down poor Buford’s door as the happy bacteria in his large intestine are processing the remainder of chili and beer night. Hell, you probably could pick up this scent a block away without a fancy mass spec.
    Better call Saul.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Just don’t live downwind across a roadless area from an emitter. Then the pi$$ed off commando wanabe’s will have to drum up some other reason to be in your house unannounced with battle armor and automatic weapons. You won’t like their go-to answer.

  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    The secondary market for clean-room suits, handling equipment, and HVAC filtration just got a new clientele.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Drive it by Trump headquarters and see what it sniffs.

    (On the other hand, it’s a meth sniffer, not a bulls**t detector)

  • avatar
    Commando

    Can it sniff out weed growing?
    Can it sniff out the smoke of the weed you’re smoking?
    Can it sniff out the smoke of the weed you smoked last week in your car?

    All meth labs and their users should be hung out to dry over a bonfire but will LE stop at just meth?

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      There is no doubt that it can pickup weed being grown or smoked and who knows for how long after.

      The big question as you’ve pointed out is that if that is what they are looking for and then putting that into the program that interprets the results.

      Of course around here and a few other states that point is more or less moot. You can grow your own with a prescription but for recreational use it must by commercially grown with a serious document trail so it can’t and isn’t grown in random houses in residential areas anymore. Now it is grown in industrial or agricultural zoned areas.

      That is one of the big benefits or legalization that no one ever talks about or even thinks about. I certainly didn’t give it much thought until I saw so many houses that had obvious signs of being a grow house coming up on the market.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      Mass spectrometers are very accurate. The hard part would be to build one small enough and durable enough to be mobile. The chemicals used in a meth lab would be specific enough to pick up. Meth labs are also very dangerous.
      I doubt they would bother with calibrating as a marijuana sniffer since that is a losing battle since it will eventually be legal in most jurisdictions (at least medically).

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        I don’t expect it will take long until the feds want in on some of that tax revenue that the 4 states that have legal taxed sales are bringing in. A couple more states are expected to vote for it this year and I think most of those already have either medical or decriminalization laws, so it is likely that at least a couple of them will pass.

        Once the federal gov’t wants the tax a lot of states will start legalizing it and getting their Mother Flippen Weed Money.

        The other benefit is that it frees the police to worry about more important things, and it gets rid of the grow houses and dealers in residential neighborhoods and schools, reduces theft and violence. You can’t trade a stolen phone for weed at a store.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          @Scoutdude – agreed. In Canada the new Liberal Government wants to legalize marijuana and the biggest legal hold up are international treaties on illicit drugs. Those have to be studied and renegotiated in some cases just to be able to legalize at home. The USA traditionally has been hardline against marijuana and many bought into the gateway theory.
          The focus does need to move away from marijuana and focus on much more damaging drugs like meth, cocaine, and heroine.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Cool tech indeed, may I have another?

    “You won’t believe it sir, but this new device can also pick up metabolized alcohol. When you drove by our sensors went off. Now, if you could, please get out of the car.”

    “No, I put on some bug spray earlier.”

    “Right, turn off the car, give me the keys and exit.”

    Let me see.. hmm we can pick up gunpowder too and you do not have a gun license for this address.. oops. Sorry, open up, it’s the law now.

    If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to worry about.. hahaha

  • avatar
    pbxtech

    I predict that the stuff to fool this machine will be dispensed in front of places that they (the police) want to search, in front of an ex’s house and as a prank. This can’t be a replacement for good police work.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @pbxtech – you can’t fool a mass spectrometer. The only way to give it a “false” signal is to provide it with the same chemicals used to make meth.
      Mass spectrometry is used in drug screening programs. They can pick up on differences that will trick more simpler tests.
      The cheep way to screen is to use a urine dip chemical reagent strip. Those can easily give false readings. OTC decongestants with phenylephrine or pseudonephrine will yield a false positive for meth. Poppy seeds will give false positives for narcotics.
      Some hemp products will obviously give false positives for THC. Ibuprophen and other NSAIDS can yield false positives for THC.
      In theory a marijuana product with no THC but containing CBD would pass a urine dip.

  • avatar
    multicam

    Moral ramifications like the ones raised above notwithstanding, this is pretty cool tech. I remember back in college taking a forensics class in which we got to use mass spectrometers. They’re pretty straightforward in their use and I remember the techs telling us how the particular models we were working with cost around $400,000. I imagine there were a lot of challenges in filtering out all of the other stuff in the air- they’re very sensitive machines since they deal with such small particles. They also described to us in painstaking detail the process by which DNA samples get processed just to convince us it’s nothing like in NCIS or CSI, where you get instant results.

  • avatar
    John

    You would think – you would think – folks would have realized “The War Against Drugs” doesn’t work, didn’t work, and never will work. But, just like “The War Against Those Evil Mooslims We Have To Fight Over There Or We’ll Have To Fight Them Here”, and the preceding “War So We Don’t Wake Up With Reds Under Our Beds”, we keep shoveling trillions of dollars down the black holes to buy oh-so-cool-techno-gadget wizardry.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      Good point. But meth labs are seriously dangerous. I wouldn’t want one in my neighborhood.

      • 0 avatar
        bikegoesbaa

        If drugs are legalized then meth labs in residential neighborhoods go away, because production would shift to big purpose-built operations with economies of scale and (incidentally) much better safety and environmental controls.

        See above re what happened to grow houses in ares with decriminalized pot.

        Legalized drugs would probably reduce meth demand quite a lot, as given the choice most people prefer stuff like cocaine or horse.

        Meth largely exists as a crappier alternative to real drugs because hillbillies can make in their bath tub. If we lived in a rational world folks could legally buy blow at CVS for $20 per pound, and the value proposition of meth would be very questionable.

        • 0 avatar
          wolfinator

          You can ALREADY BUY a meth substitute for ~$40 at your local CVS. Our society just has it’s head so up it’s butt about it that most people can’t grok that fact.

          http://www.goodrx.com/adderall

          Newsflash: Amphetamine use isn’t a problem. If amphetamines were actually seriously, critically bad for you with regular use, we’d have kids dropping like flies.

          Meth is bad because street meth is polluted with god-knows-what adjuncts, and people use massive doses.

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            Yep. Prescription Thugs is a good watch.

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            wolfinator – I surmise by your post that you don’t understand the addictivity of methamphetamines versus standard prescription amphetamines.

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            Isn’t it just a matter of quantity and method of ingestion?

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            rpn453 – crystal meth is absorbed extremely rapidly and therefore gives an intense high. That is why it is so addictive. The problem is that after the first several hits, that intense high does not occur because the producers of neurotransmitters in your brain start to get damaged and shut down. The individual craves that same euphoria and tries to chase it down but higher and higher doses never gives that same high ever again.
            They then get into a vicious cycle of consumption just to stave off the withdrawal symptoms.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @John – fearmongering has always been an effective way of justifying government expenditures or government actions. It also appears to be an effective way to run an election campaign.

      Meth labs are dangerous. We had one blow up in our town once. Luckily no one was seriously hurt. Even the stoner running it escaped with minor injuries.

  • avatar
    George B

    Why use a Ford Fusion Energi? If the mass spectrometer has difficulty detecting chemicals in the presence of emissions from the car its mounted in, wouldn’t it have difficulty with emissions from other vehicles?

  • avatar
    stuki

    Welll, I guess the need to snort meth, is one excuse for a nose like that…..

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    Is that thing turbo charged?

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