Monitoring of CB Threat Agents for Environment and Security: Proposal for a Delphi Study on Emerging Sensor Technologies and Future Applications for 2030

Table of Contents

A. Objectives of the study

This proposed technology foresight study on future developments in detection and monitoring of chemical/biological threat agents will use an iterative consensus-building Delphi approach. In the focus of the study will be emerging technological developments, amongst others in the area of multivariable sensors, ubiquitous sensing, nanosensors, UAS-based sensing, artificial noses, printed sensors, IoT, and intelligent sensors.

Overall, our research aims at two main contributions. First, we intend to identify relevant projections regarding future perspectives of sensor technologies for monitoring and detection of chemical/biological threat agents in the environment, and to validate these projections using a broad expert survey to assess the probability of their occurrence along with their impact and relevance for firms and society. In doing so, we want to deliver a basis to substantiate application-related discussions and support firm and user decision-making on the technology’s future development and economic implications that go beyond current speculations surrounding the impact of ‘AI powered sensors’. Second, our empirical results should allow to build scenarios for the most probable future of technologies for sensing and monitoring threat agents in indoor and outdoor environments, helping long-term strategic planning. The scenarios should support managers when drafting new strategies and challenging those already in place. Researchers could use the scenarios as a starting point for further study of the technology’s development.

A key issue in this study is to identify, evaluate and synthesise information, visions, viewpoints, controversies etc. from different sources. Input from different sources is essential in technology foresight studies in order to identify viewpoints, agreements and controversies.

B. Methodical approach and planned procedure

The proposed study will employ a consensus-based approach, the Delphi method, which aims to determine the level of consensus among a group of experts (stakeholders) by aggregation of opinions into refined agreed opinion. The two-step Delphi technique chosen by us is an expert survey in two rounds based on anonymised questionnaires in which the degree of agreement to a catalogue of statements on the survey topic is inquired. The results of the first survey round will be given as feedback in the second round. Therefore, the experts answer in the second round under the influence of their colleagues’ opinions, and this is what differentiates Delphi from ordinary opinion surveys. The idea is that the respondents can learn from the views of the other participants, without being unduly influenced by the people who talk loudest at meetings, or who have most prestige, etc. The method chosen for this study is based on structural surveys and makes use of information from the experience and knowledge of the expert participants. It therefore will yield both qualitative and quantitative results and draws on exploratory, predictive even normative elements.

The planned Delphi study will be only as insightful as the quality of the underlying statements. Hence, we will take great care that our statements and questions remain sufficiently diverse and cover a broad spectrum of developments and influencing factors in the CB detection and monitoring field. To ensure methodological rigor and to achieve specificity in formulation, these statements will be checked for ambiguity and precise wording by a team of senior researchers familiar with the subject matter. Afterwards, all final projections will be pre-tested with external (industry) experts in order to ensure content reliability as well as face validity.

Appropriate selection of expert participants is a key point of the projected study and it will be crucial to identify experts who are both visionary and actively involved in the field. It is planned to include not only different stakeholders (from industry and academia), but also from a broad spectrum of nationalities. Identification of potential experts will be by database research, a networking approach, and search in professional social networks (such as LinkedIn, Xing, ResearchGate). Selection criteria will be technical specialization in the related field, publications in the domain, corporate function, and their company’s stake in the technology’s domain. Experts to be selected need to be both, capable of delivering suitable statements about future developments and to be interested in the results of our study. Otherwise, experts may lack motivation to reconsider their own evaluations by reflecting on the responses of their peers.

C. Thematic note: Detection and monitoring of chemical and biological hazardous substances

The safety of the environment is one of the fundamental requirements of human well-being. A global challenge of increasing importance is the protection against biological and chemical hazards in indoor and outdoor environments. In addition to the reduction and elimination of the introduction of hazardous substances into the environment, the development of technologies for the detection and monitoring of such agents in a sensitive and selective manner is at the forefront. In the future, our society will need to monitor the quality of life of the environment to a much greater and more significant extent and in a broader range of locations than is currently the case. Such monitoring serves in particular to protect against biological and chemical environmental hazards, including B and C weapons, to carry out environmental remediation measures and to enforce environmental legislation, which also demonstrably contributes to reducing the input of hazardous substances. The development of the technical prerequisites for reliable on-site monitoring of environmental hazards in soil, water and air is therefore a task of particular importance for analytics in the coming years. Technological progress requires multidisciplinary approaches, which include in particular microsystems technology, materials sciences, information and communication technology, biotechnology, chemistry and environmental sciences.

Need for detection of a constantly growing spectrum of environmental hazards

Chemical and biological hazardous substances are defined as substances as well as mixtures and solutions of several substances which have harmful properties (toxic, infectious, carcinogenic, mutagenic, environmentally hazardous, explosive, etc.). Technological progress has led to an increasing risk to man and nature due to accidents resulting from the industrial use, manufacture or transport of such hazardous substances. In addition, there is a potential threat from the effects of the use of hazardous substances as weapons in the context of war or terrorism. For some years now, increasing concern has been expressed about improving the possibilities for state and non-state actors to manufacture and use chemical and biological agents as weapons. Threat analyses attach ever greater importance to the threat posed to the population by terrorism and consider the use of chemical and biological agents by relevant groups when planning protective measures.

Technological innovations and new sensor concepts

The detection of biological and chemical hazardous substances in the environment is technologically highly complex. Current research and development activities in this field include a multitude of different approaches to the design of increasingly powerful devices. In recent years, in addition to the well-known laboratory analysis methods, a large number of powerful new sensor systems have been developed to the point of application, in which today a variety of different functional principles and measuring methods (Raman spectroscopy, Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW), surface plasmon resonance, etc.) are used that are difficult to overlook. Chemo- and biosensors and biosensor arrays, detector systems based on microfluidic devices as well as novel sensors based on micro- or nanoelectromechanical systems (MEMS or NEMS) already represent a cost-effective and often more user-friendly alternative to conventional analytical methods in some application situations. In addition, the progressive miniaturization of classical laboratory analysis instruments such as mass spectrometry also enables the further development of portable instruments for on-site detection.

The further development of mobile systems for the remote detection of hazardous substances has also advanced considerably over the last ten years in terms of detection sensitivity, analysis spectrum and manageability. Technological progress has also made it increasingly feasible to develop powerful sensor networks by combining analytical devices for hazardous substance monitoring with wireless communication units. This allows the precise observation of the presence of harmful chemical and biological substances in the environment over large areas. Such wireless sensor networks, which are among the key technologies of the 21st century, could in future detect and process harmful hazardous substance entries on site and forward them to other sensor nodes or a central authority in order to continuously create a precise situation picture of the hazardous substance exposure of the environment. In addition to conventional sensor networks, which are based on more or less statically placed sensor nodes, research and development approaches are increasingly being pursued today under the term “Participatory Sensing” in which humans or their vehicles are integrated into systems as carriers of sensor nodes. 

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