It's a nightmare scenario: In some future war, an adversary flies a plane over the unsuspecting Canadian heartland and sprays anthrax or another deadly agent into the air. It's odorless, colourless, and the innocent people breathing it in are none the wiser.
The Canadian army wants to be able to detect bioweapons before they can hurt anybody—using lasers.
According to a request for proposal published to the government's public-facing procurement website on Monday, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) is looking for a bidder to investigate how various airborne biological and chemical agents respond to being flashed with a laser for the purposes of detection and early warning. The contract is set to run until 2022, and the government will dedicate $850,000 to the project.
"Chemical samples absorb and emit [light] at characteristic wavelengths that may be detected using laboratory, ground-based and airborne [...] sensors in the laboratory or field," the request for proposal states. In other words, when flashed with a laser, airborne chemical particles send back a unique optical signal that can be detected by specialized equipment.
But before that can happen, technicians need a large library of recorded signals that can be checked against in order to find out exactly what kind of bioweapon they're dealing with. That, according to the request for proposal, is what scientists will be doing under this research project.
"These activities have an objective to monitor air quality around valuable military assets, in order to detect and mitigate potential aerosolized or gaseous chemical and biological threats," Evan Koronewski, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence, wrote me in an email. "This is done fundamentally from a defense perspective."
The work won't involve testing real bioweapons—that would probably be pretty dangerous—but will instead focus on "simulants" (non-lethal analogs) of dangerous compounds, Koronewski said, and will be done under controlled conditions.
The Canadian military and the DRDC in particular have been investigating ways to detect bioweapons from a distance, even using lasers, for years. Between 1999 and 2002, the DRDC developed a system called SINBAHD, which used lasers to detect biological agents. It's no longer in operation. In the intervening years, the DRDC developed several more laser-based technologies for detecting bioweapons.
Hopefully, we'll never have to use any of this advanced tech.