Forensic investigators may soon have an electronic ally that allows them to collect samples quickly, automatically, and without handling the evidence. The Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has engineered the Hands-Off Sampler Gun to help crime scene investigators prevent cross-contamination or mishandling and to protect them from potentially hazardous substances such as ricin or anthrax. 

The idea for the Sampler Gun originated with Dr. Torsten Staab, a scientist at Lab's Applied Engineering Technologies division. When Staab observed the collection process during routine lab inspections, he realized there must be a more accurate and less time consuming method of recording the samples.

Currently, each sample collected takes five minutes or more to process at the scene. This includes handling a swab or other method of collecting the sample and then bagging it for submission to a lab. It also requires manually recording information such as where, when, and how the sample was collected and who collected it, then identifying it with a barcode. The information then needs to be duplicated electronically, leaving it open to subjective interpretation and potential errors in the process.

No-Touch Technology

But the battery-operated Sampler Gun instantly and automatically records the time, place, and name of the sample taker to reduce the number of process errors and operator contact with contaminated areas. The device also includes a universal sample media adaptor which enables the collector to load and discharge a variety of sampling media (e.g. swabs, Q-tips, etc.) without them being touched by human hands.

Staab was convinced that the technology could be used not only at crime scenes, but also during bioterror and arson investigations, at environmental research sites, and for industrial hygiene applications.

He applied to Los Alamos technology transfer office for commercialization resources. However, without a prototype, Staab's technology was turned down.

CCAT Funding Arrives

But Staab was undeterred by the setback and he sought help from the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology (CCAT).

With separate offices located at the Office of Technology Transfer and Commercialization (OTTC) at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), and San Diego State University (SDSU), the CCAT program actively solicits and reviews promising technologies engineered by small entrepreneurs, academic researchers and government labs.

In February 2004, OTTC awarded CCAT funds to Staab amounting to $75, 000 for prototype development with additional funding for a market study.

This funding gave Staab the needed resources to get the Sampler Gun's prototype development off the ground. "The funding allowed me to buy all the components that I thought would be important to the device, but it also helped me to pay the required in-house software and engineering," said Staab.

Fool-Proof Sample Taking

The first prototype of the Hands-Off Sampler Gun was completed in 2004. The data recorded at the scene is stored on a wi-fi enabled Pocket PC that is embedded into the Sampler gun. The data can be downloaded at a later time to a desktop computer. The PC can also be used to wirelessly download maps, instructions, intra-team communications and blueprints to sample collectors to improve efficiency and situational awareness.

Staab also designed the Hands-Off Sampler Gun to include a digital camera that can take still shots or video; a digital voice recorder; a bar code reader; a cryptographic key reader for user authentication and encryption, a sonar sensor for measuring distance; a temperature probe; GPS capabilities; an SD memory card reader and an electronic compass. The design also included voice recognition sensors, which allows users to voice commands to the system, thus, minimizing contact with the device and lessening the possibility of contaminating it.

The Sampler Gun was also designed so that biological, chemical, and radiological sensors can be integrated into the device to provide sample identification capabilities for instant feedback.

Additionally, the Sampler Gun stores its multi-media field information in a non-proprietary data format using eXtenable Markup Language (XML). This allows all federal, state, and/or local government agencies involved with the sampling process to easily share and store the information while using their own proprietary database systems. "Rather than engineering a device that spits out 10 different data formats, we came up with a generic one that everyone can read easily and can map into their own data bases if they want to," said Staab.

The Sampler Gun Fan Club

The device has now has a legion of fans. The FBI—who helped Staab with feedback early on—has offered assistance in field testing the Sampler Gun. And, during a recent round of beta tests at the Los Alamos National Labs, sample collectors in haz-mat suits gave the device high marks due to its ease of use during limited mobility situations. Footage of this test was aired on Court TV's "Saturday Night Solution" in July 2007.

The OTTC program management also provided ongoing support for the Sampler Gun with another $7,000 in January 2007 to build two additional prototype devices that Staab's team can send to potential licensees. "Prior to getting the CCAT funding, I was developing this project in my spare time," said Staab. "The CCAT funding officially turned this into a real lab project. Thanks to the seed money I got from CCAT, I was able to bootstrap my way up and get to where we are now."

Staab expects the Sampler Gun will be ready for licensing by Q3 2007.