Remote Sensing of Meth Labs

Another National Science Foundation grant, this one for $150K to a company called Bridger Photonics:

This Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I research project addresses the need for sensitive, portable, low-cost, laser-based remote sensing devices to detect chemical effluents of illicit methamphetamine (meth) production from a distance. The proposed project will develop an innovative correlated-mode laser source for high-resolution mid-infrared differential absorption lidar. To accomplish this the research team will base the research on a compact, monolithic, passively Q-switched laser/optical parametric oscillator design that has proven incredibly effective for ranging purposes (no spectroscopy) in demanding environments. This source, in its present state, is unsuitable for high-resolution mid-infrared spectroscopy. The team will therefore advance the laser by targeting the desired effluent mid-IR wavelengths, significantly improving the spectral, spatial, and temporal emission characteristics, and incorporating dual mode operation. Realization of the laser source will enable real-time remote detection of meth labs in widely varying environments, locations, and circumstances with quantum-limited detection sensitivity, spectral selectivity for the desired molecules in a spectral region that is difficult to access, and differential measurement capabilities for effective self calibration.

Posted on June 18, 2007 at 12:52 PM34 Comments


greg June 18, 2007 1:37 PM

So that means they will now win the war on drugs?

Ok so jokes aside. 150K is not a lot of money for stuff like this. I mean how much does a back scatter Xray machine cost? At thats simpler than this.

RSaunders June 18, 2007 1:45 PM

Backscatter just tells you there is stuff inside. So a house has stuff inside, that won’t get you a warrant.

In California they used a gizmo like this to look for high-smog vehicles. Just look at the gas behind a car for high concentrations of the gases you don’t like.

Looks like this is something you could use to scan the air over a block to tell you which house to examine in detail.

The real question is “Can they get this automated enough that a police detective can work it?” We don’t need any more gadgets that require a PhD in chemistry to utilize.

DarthParadox June 18, 2007 2:01 PM

I’m curious about how this runs up against the right to require a warrant for search. Will they be using the technology to actually try to penetrate the walls of a house/apartment for sensing, or just try to read the air around buildings (i.e. in “plain sight”) to detect them? The latter seems perfectly fine by legal search standards; the former seems like it could run into problems.

mikero June 18, 2007 2:04 PM

When I first saw this headline, I thought it said “Remote viewing of meth labs” (as in psychics), which may already be in use by some police departments. 😉

Lou the troll June 18, 2007 2:30 PM

@FooDoo: Ya, but treatment and/or prevention doesn’t keep our rural economies afloat in jail operations monies (comments on the Blue-mafia intentionally left out).

Christoph Zurnieden June 18, 2007 2:42 PM

It seems as if somebody is way behind the war du jour. It isn’t the war on drugs anymore it’s the war on terror now. Please reword the application to mention “remote detection of explosives” in association with “terrorists” and expect a grant of at least ten times more.


Anonymous June 18, 2007 3:09 PM


I suspect this will bypass the warrant requirements, because it samples and measures things which are in the public domain (i.e. air already outside the building). You would then use concentration-readings in proximity to various houses to get search-warrants.

Of course, if the meth-labs start using fume-hoods with activated-carbon filtration systems, they might not be as vulnerable to this…but we’d all be better off, as fewer “effluents” would be dumped into our common atmosphere.

Roxanne June 18, 2007 3:55 PM

Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to hire a dog?

Plus, this will only catch the amateur labs, not the ones that are in basements and other places where they can filter their effluent.

dragonfrog June 18, 2007 3:56 PM

Never mind long-distance laser spectroscopy. Where I live, there is a much more easily detectable byproduct of drug houses – telephone calls to the police from the neighbours – which the police seem largely incapable of detecting.

Perhaps if a device or method could be devised to detect, correlate, and investigate incidences of these electromagnetic emissions…

Joseph June 18, 2007 4:20 PM

“Perhaps if a device or method could be devised to detect, correlate, and investigate incidences of these electromagnetic emissions…”

You laugh, but most police departments don’t have any software doing correlations on their incoming citizen complaints. I used to work for a large company that was working on easy-to-use software that provided these correlations based on address, in a way that a police officer could actually use with no technical knowledge.

When you have a large agency, like Miami-Dade County or Philadelphia, you need automated systems to sort out the 1,000+ calls you get per day. Individual operators can’t remember who among the hundreds of calls they received correlated with who.

Blaisepascal June 18, 2007 4:30 PM

A few years ago, the SCOTUS ruled that it was illegal for police, without a warrant, to use infrared imaging on a house to detect indoor marijuana growers. The police argued that they didn’t have to go onto the suspects property to “see” the heat coming off the house from the massive amounts of grow-lights. The SCOTUS didn’t buy it, and said that the folks in the house had a reasonable expectation of privacy from stuff that couldn’t be readily detected by an average person. The average person doesn’t have infrared-sensing eyes, so the cops don’t get to use them without a warrant.

I somehow doubt that this new technology will pass muster under that precident.

Anonymous June 18, 2007 5:12 PM

I wonder what the false-positive ratio is. I’d hate to be the target of a SWAT and aerial bust just because I’ve got a basement darkroom or something.

I guess we’ll have to wait until the device is deployed, and see how the meth-cookers start camouflaging their by-products. It’d be funny if something commonly available, say Huggies, got repurposed into filters. “Hey, that woman is suspicious: she just bought a cartload of diapers. Better follow her and see if she’s a meth-cooker or just a woman with a baby.” The 21st-century culture of suspicion.

Chris E June 18, 2007 6:50 PM

The false positive rate was something I was wondering as well. The lidar is supposed to detect certain absorption spectra in IR – but do they envision it will be that accurate? I imagine someone cleaning their bathroom with too much bleach or something might set it off. Not to mention all the fun chemicals in people’s garages and workshops.

Anonymous June 18, 2007 11:07 PM

Basically STTR’s and the related SBIR program is designed to keep small tech companies from going under until they can find a niche for their specialized product. Methamphetamine is big in Montana, and so their spin worked in keeping the business afloat a little longer. As a previous poster pointed out, you’d see better ROE with a sniffer dog and neighbourhood tip-offs. In this case, Lidar is a tehcnology looking for a problem.

Greg June 19, 2007 2:31 AM


Sorry I didn’t make myself clear. “Production” backsacter instrements sell for a lot. More than 150K IIRC. Even normal Xray machines at airports are 10-20K each.

My point was that 150K probably won’t by a production version. Its not going to get far with a prototype or even a R&D prototype!

I mean what is the HS budget anyway?

John Davies June 19, 2007 3:03 AM


I read recently that the grow lights needed for marijuana production were detectable by looking at a house’s electricity demand profile. Presumably this is only possible where you have remote meter reading capability and can sample at a regular enough rate. Or where you’re going for mass production and the bills increase by an order of magnitude!

Related article mentions thermal imaging but not any legal ramifications.

Clive Robinson June 19, 2007 5:27 AM

Once upon a time, if you wanted to filter off fumes (with a known smell) you made up a lye bath or acid equivalent and pumped the gas through it (even stacks of broken dog biscuits in old oil cans apparently worked for most organic chemicals).

But of course costic soda is now on the DHS Chemical watch list and anybody buying a couple of tonnes of charcoal dog biscuits is going to get a visit from somebody…

In reality though it is way to easy to make a filter that will stop 99.9% of the majority of chemicals this Lidar is going to pick up and many other techniques will deal with the rest of them.

For those thinking about making a filter have a look at some of the less high tec industrial filters from the 1970’s. Basicaly think woven plastic cloth, supporting plastic mesh constructed in a zig zag arangment with the liquid based active ingredients jet sprayed in at the top and the fumes from the chemical process pumped in at the bottom. The greater the surface area of liquid to fumes the better the result.

Oh and finally why release the gas at all with a little bit of effort they meth makers could have an effectivly closed system.

Peter June 19, 2007 7:31 AM

@Clive: You mean I can’t buy large bags of charcoal for my BBQ in the US anymore ?

GiggleStick June 19, 2007 8:26 AM

If this works, then can I buy pseudophedrine without getting an anal probe again. They replaced it with Phenylephrine in most over the counter drugs, even though it hasn’t been satisfactorily proven to be more effective than placebo. The best cold medicine I used to give my kids (and my parents gave me) can’t be purchased in its original formula anymore, so I have to try and reconstitute it by buying pseudoephedrine medicine and Chlorphenamine maleate separately and give them both, when they used to be available in one medicine. All under the guise of stopping Meth labs. The truth though is that since this control of pseudophedrine started, meth labs have moved to Mexico, and Meth use has DOUBLED in the US. At least my kids can’t get the proper cold medicine, though. That makes me feel better.

watcher June 19, 2007 8:36 AM

@ John Davies

I saw a case on tv where growers in California would buy houses just for growing marijuana and they rewired the incoming power line to by pass the meter. But, they still have a part of it attaches to the meter. So, the bill each month would be that of an average household.

Anonymous June 19, 2007 9:07 AM


“You mean I can’t buy large bags of charcoal for my BBQ in the US anymore ?

I hope not but you never know, the last time I was out in the U.S. it was a way of life even in winter 😉

I was being a bit flippant about the DHS and Co and their monitoring of chemicals etc.

I kind of assumed that if they where going to “get their panties in a wad” about things like Sodium Hydroxide in relativly small quantaties, somebody ordering two tones of “Charcoal Dog Biscuits” would probably send them into a George WB mentality trying to figure out what they where going to use them for…

1234 June 19, 2007 9:17 AM

On the electric-meter thing: I rememeber reading a news story about a house whose front door was kicked in and searched by the police as a suspected grow operation based on the amount of electricity they used. Also, they would only put the trash out for collection right before pick up time. (Apparently avoiding attracting rats is a suspicious.)

At any rate, it turned out to be a family with four children. They owned an air conditioner, an electric clothes dryer, a couple of television sets, and ran the dishwasher often.

1234 June 19, 2007 9:17 AM

On the electric-meter thing: I rememeber reading a news story about a house whose front door was kicked in and searched by the police as a suspected grow operation based on the amount of electricity they used. Also, they would only put the trash out for collection right before pick up time. (Apparently avoiding attracting rats is a suspicious.)

At any rate, it turned out to be a family with four children. They owned an air conditioner, an electric clothes dryer, a couple of television sets, and ran the dishwasher often.

dragonfrog June 19, 2007 11:05 AM

I thought the usual method was to wire around the electric meter – run your regular houseold appliances through the meter, and your grow lights through the unmetered feed, so you pass only enough current through the meter to produce a normal-looking bill.


Yeah, I guess that makes sense – it would probably be nothing technically hard, but good user interface design, especially in special-purpose software, is often quite unusual.

Cochese Tonto June 19, 2007 2:08 PM

“On the electric-meter thing: I rememeber reading a news story about a house whose front door was kicked in and searched by the police as a suspected grow operation based on the amount of electricity they used.”

Next strategies by growers: solar panels on the roof! Wind power! CFLs! 🙂

FP June 19, 2007 2:48 PM

“detect chemical effluents of illicit methamphetamine (meth) production”

Wow, it’s rather impressive that the device will be able to distinguish illicit from legit meth production.

“The team will therefore advance the laser”

So the meat of the grant is for improving the laser source, probably a worthwile effort in itself. The angle about meth detection smells of an attempt to get more pork barrel funding.

Armchair Analyst June 19, 2007 8:16 PM

I suspect a system such as this could be used to find many things which could have a detectable signature. Pretty soon they will be monitoring the gasses given off by people to see what they can detect as well. This could go from the almost innocuous to the downright invasive risk to personal privacy. Imagine if an employer could just look at a potential employee through a camera like device and detect whether they were a drug user, whether they were in good health, whether they had specific illnesses etcetera. There really is no limit to what could be detected as long as it produced some kind of a detectable signature.

DigitalCommando June 19, 2007 9:19 PM

When you consider that law enforcement can now obtain military- grade surveillance hardware without any judicial review (as it used to be), due to the fact that the Department of Homeland Spying has no concern for the legal/moral issues associated with these items and issues them freely. To see what the cops are using now, go to and check out the xaver 800. They have a millimeter wave device which easily sees through the walls of your home in a 3D high resolution color image. Several large city police departments have secretly installed these on their helicopters and they can fly around and view the activities within any home. Finding an active meth lab would be a piece of cake. We all know that this device will be used for the wrong reasons and it’s use is clearly a violation of the 4th amendment as it allows “entry into the home” without a warrant.

m June 21, 2007 5:11 AM

For filtering out organics, you could also use soil from a garden store (or your garden), provided it is rich in organic compounds. Or wood or bark chips. This is used to filter smelly stuff from exhaust.
But simply coal could work, too.

Garick June 21, 2007 8:54 AM

About false positives…

The question is I suppose will they even be
looking for a ‘drug’ signature or some sort
of solvent. I imagine they would look for
things they can easily detect with raman
spectra (which I don’t know much about).

I think I remember reading that to catch heroin production they look predominantly for acetic acid because it is easy to detect and a reasonable excess is used in the conversion of opium to heroin.


Clive Robinson June 23, 2007 7:19 AM


“I thought the usual method was to wire around the electric meter ”

Not for nearly a hundred years or so.

Most power providers have substations at the end of the road that have meters as well.

The provider simply tots up the readings of the houses and compares to that of the meter at the substation. If the two are out by more than a few percent then somebody is stealing electricity and it will not take long to find them.

No if you are going to steal electricity take it from your neighbour after their meter (very anti social) or from some point up the supply line, where your extra usage is small enough to be missed in the “margin of error”. But know what you are doing or else it could be one of the last things you do…

And no don’t take it from street lights this also is well nailed down even more so as the usage is very very predictable and so a simple change in load is going to show up.

Shad June 24, 2007 3:41 AM

What about destroying the chemical signatures of the effluents by burning the egress gas off? Just add some propane or natural gas and ignite it in a flare, like some chemical plants do; the flare can even be e.g. a gas heater. Or, even better, in a gas turbine generator (though beware of the possible corrosive effect of the not-yet-burned chemicals) offsetting part of the power consumption of the facility.

If done correctly, the only resulting products are carbon dioxide and water vapor. (And minuscule traces of trace elements and leaking chemicals. Which is much weaker signal buried deeper in the noise, requiring much more expensive equipment, and giving more ambiguous results.)

Anonymous July 4, 2007 6:33 AM

Over here in the UK, there is reportedly a problem with people renting houses and fitting them out as marijuana-growing factories. In response, police helicopters with FLIR (forward looking infra-red) cameras have been used to pick out houses with the particular heat signature that these houses put put out.

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