Next Big Thing

Rapid DNA Readers on the Front Lines

Jun 12, 2015

According to a recent post by defenseone Special Operators are getting extra tools that will help them identify suspects during field operations within 90 minutes. The US Special Operations Command confirmed that field testing had started on two rapid DNA scanners.

Up to now, the tool of choice for identifying individuals has been the Biometrics Automated Toolset which is a device that takes fingerprints, and photos and performs iris scans on people that troops come in contact with. That data was then fed into the Defense Department’s Automated Biometric Identification System.
The goal in both of these systems is to identify people of interest while you are in critical situations, so speed is of the essence. In the past, DNA scanners have been too slow to be used effectively. The process basically required the operative to take a physical DNA sample, put it in a envelope and sent it to America for analysis. By the time the results came back, it was too late to act on the information.

“We haven’t been collecting DNA, in part because it’s been a cumbersome and lengthy process to do that. There was no reason for the units to go out and collect DNA because the results were so slow,” said Michael S. Fitz, manager of the Sensitive Site Exploitation Special Reconnaissance, Surveillance & Exploitation program at U.S. Special Operations Command.
With the new rapid DNA scanners becoming the gold standard, operatives will be able to conduct a midnight raid on a terrorist compound in Pakistan or Syria and have results on site within 90 minutes.

The devices weigh less than 28 kg (60 pounds) making them portable enough to be effectively moved around and cost just $250,000 – a bargain when compared with the cost of setting up a full, mobile lab, especially since these devices can be operated by a single person.
The primary problem now is that the DNA database is still poorly populated. Fitz described the Defense Department’s DNA database as “not robust; not populated with the people we’re interested in… Right now, rapid DNA is about where fingerprints were 10 or 12 years ago.”

Despite this drawback, Fitz is excited about its potential and hopes that one of the devices, a RapidHIT 200 from IntegenX, a California-based company, or the DNAscan from Massachusetts-based NetBIO, will become standard issue.

The units are being used now to verify the identity of targets. “Our whole program is built around follow-on targeting. We don’t gather biometrics for criminal prosecution,” Fitz said. “Our primary objective is actionable intelligence for follow-on targeting.” Testing will then be conducted either before raids take place or after they are completed.
DNA testing in military operations is not completely new. According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, when operatives successfully completed the Osama Bin Laden raid, his identity was confirmed by DNA analysis. Soon, virtually every terrorist suspect or insurgent could receive the same treatment.

The next step will be to develop a rugged, battery-powered DNA reader about the size of a cellphone and special operations fighters can use to “collect DNA right there on the site.” and immediately connect to a database to allow for onsite verification.

Once the technology is small enough the most important step will be to grow the database of DNA samples to match against.
“When we first went out with fingerprints we got about a 5 percent match rate. Now we’ve populated the database, so we get 40 percent match,” said Fitz. He hopes DNA matching will show the same rapid improvement. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.

Noosphere Ventures is always at the forefront of new technologies and sees that Rapid DNA Readers will change our reality.