TAMPA, Fla. — US special operations forces are using forward-deployed rapid DNA scanners on a limited basis to confirm targets. Troops have used DNA from improvised bomb components to capture "some very bad people," according to an official with US Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
SOCOM is evaluating the devices for wider fielding. If successful, they have the potential to cut the time used to process DNA evidence from weeks to 90 minutes and replace fingerprint analysis downrange, according to Michael Fitz, SOCOM's program manager for sensitive site exploitation.
"It's a groundbreaking, game-breaking technology," Fitz said at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference on Wednesday. "In the past, a guy would have to put [a DNA sample] in an envelope and send it back to the states and wait a few weeks to find out who he had. By then he's had 12 other missions and forgotten who that guy was."
During SOCOM's evaluation of the equipment, DNA found on components of an improvised explosive device led to captures. The devices, which are expensive to use, are being saved for "the juicy missions," Fitz said.
"We've got these rapid DNA devices deployed downrange, actually collecting DNA samples from guys our guys encounter, and I can tell you we've already had some operational successes," he said.
"The driver in this scenario is we're fighting insurgencies," he said. "Identifying the enemy is half the game."
The program is evaluating two devices, one made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based NetBio, and the other by IntegenX, of Pleasanton, California. Whether to launch a formal acquisition program will be decided by the end of the year.
SOCOM is guiding industry toward a future device that is smaller and tougher so elite troops can use them in on-the-spot analyses with little training.
The machines, which cost roughly $250,000 each, weigh 120 pounds or 200 pounds, depending on the manufacturer. The reagents, which have a two-month shelf life, must be refrigerated.
"We want something that doesn't take a Ph.D to operate, obviously," Fitz said. "We have knuckle draggers out there that are operating these things, and they are doing quite well and getting great results.
Ideally, such a machine would also alert the operator to a DNA match in the field. Fitz acknowledged the database SOCOM accesses for the work is not robust for the people special operators are interested in, likening it to where battlefield fingerprinting was a decade ago.
Fitz said the data in question is from a criminal database, populated with suspects in the US, as troops have not been collecting DNA from insurgents, Fitz said.
Typically, someone would have to take a swab of organic material called a buccal swab, place it in a sterile bag and ship it to a lab, which could have a backlog — a process that could take weeks.
With a rapid DNA scanner, an operator would place a piece of bubblegum or a cigarette butt into a cartridge filled with special chemicals and place it in the machine to compare it with known DNA profiles.
SOCOM has had two of IntegenX's devices, the RapidHIT, for the six months. The device is the size of two laser copiers, so a five-pound device — which Fitz would like to see — is a ways out, said Benji Hutchinson, senior director of federal business for MorphoTrust USA, which has an agreement with IntegenX to sell and service the devices.
"I strongly believe the power is in the back-end data when you start doing comparisons, because that's when you save lives," he said. "That's where you have a real impact, because like [Fitz] said, the hit rate is going to be sparse."
Hutchinson said he has worked with the US Army's biometrics efforts and saw the size of a fingerprint scanner shrink to the size of a smartphone, leading hope to the idea a DNA scanner could be miniaturized.
"It's a technological feat that we've gotten it this far," he said. "Can it be done? I've seen it done before … It can be done with enough willpower and money."