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A Detector With Detractors

Manufacturer of device, which has been used by an L.A. police group, says it can help locate fugitives or victims buried in rubble. But some scientists call it a fake.

September 24, 1998|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

What do techno-novelist Tom Clancy and some segments of the Los Angeles police community have in common?

Both have praised the merits of a "human-detecting" device that critics charge is an outright fake. Clancy used it in his newest novel, and a Los Angeles narcotics task force says it has been 100% successful in using the device.

LifeGuard, manufactured by DielectroKinetic Laboratories, LLC, of Washington, is marketed as a device to detect the faint electrical signal of a human heartbeat--at distances of up to 500 feet, and through metal, concrete and water.

The company says the device, which comes in three models costing $6,000 to $14,000, can pinpoint victims in the rubble of a demolished building or locate criminals eluding police.

"People can be localized through concrete and steel walls, earthen barriers, inside stationary or moving vehicles and underwater," the company's literature says. "There are no known electronic or other countermeasures."

A federal laboratory that tested the device to determine if the government should purchase it, however, found that its success rate in locating hidden individuals was little better than would be predicted by chance. The company says its own tests are much more successful and that the government tests were flawed.

Independent Examinations

Independent scientists who have examined DKL's claims say the device is little more than a modern version of the familiar Y-shaped stick of wood that purportedly can locate water underground.

"The LifeGuard is a dowsing rod dressed up in high-tech clothes with lights and buttons," said physicist Robert Park of the University of Maryland. The company's explanation of how it works is "meaningless techno-babble," said Park, who is also a spokesman for the American Physical Society.

"This is vintage pseudoscience," said Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, editor of Skeptic magazine and author of "Why People Believe Weird Things." "They attempt to look and sound scientific, with all the buzzwords but without any real scientific content."

"It's a total fake," said professional skeptic James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation, a respected organization devoted to exposing pseudoscience. "I've offered my $1-million prize to them if they can prove that it works, but they haven't taken me up on it."

Company officials, however, say that Randi is "a washed-up magician," that Park is receiving money from Randi ("I wish," Park responded) and that LifeGuard is the victim of a concerted attempt to discredit the company.

"We know the technology works; we've seen it work," said Anthony Daniels, a retired assistant director of the FBI. "This device can save lives."

Devices to detect humans, drugs, guns and other materials have a long and inglorious history, and LifeGuard is simply the most recent example, skeptics say. One of the most egregious examples is the Quadro QRS 250G detector, manufactured by Quadro Corp. of Harleyville, S.C.

Police forces and schools around the country paid $1,000 to $8,000 for this little plastic box with an antenna sticking out of it, which purportedly could find drugs and a host of other objects. Testimonials from police and educators were the company's principal marketing tactic.

But when scientists from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio got their hands on one and opened it up, there was nothing in it--except a ball of epoxy with a few dead ants.

After the FBI found that the company was making fraudulent claims, a federal judge put Quadro out of business in January 1996.

Still on the market is the Super-Sensor Dousing Rod, which can be ordered from Psi-Tronics Visions for $79.95. A brochure says: "You can dowse the past, present and future. . . . Locate underground water, pipes, minerals, oil, etc. Locate fish and game animals, or missing persons."

LifeGuard does have electronic circuitry inside. It looks rather like a science fiction ray gun, with a barrel mounted on a handgrip and a 6-inch-long antenna projecting from the barrel.

The device rotates on the handgrip to point in the direction of the human heart it is seeking. More expensive models incorporate a small laser to better show where the device is pointing and, supposedly, to make it more sensitive to the heart's electric field. The company says it does not respond to the hearts of cats, dogs or other animals--a proposition that physiologists scoff at because of the strong electrical similarities between such organs.

DKL says the device monitors electrical signals of 1.2 to 2.0 hertz (cycles per second) emitted by the heart. But the wavelength of a 2-hertz signal is 93,150 miles, according to physicist Dale W. Murray of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Antennas used to detect electrical signals generally have a length of one-quarter the wavelength they are detecting. To detect a 2-herz signal would thus require an antenna about 23,287 miles long, he said, clearly much longer than the 15-inch antenna of LifeGuard.

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