A group of Kitchener engineers have teamed up to design a roadside impairment screening device capable of detecting mono- and polydrug use, including substances such as cannabis, cocaine and opiates.
Guard-Ex is a Waterloo-based startup located in the historic building at 14 Erb St. W. Waterloo, Ont., once the home of the original Mutual Life Assurance Company and now home to the Communitech Data Hub. The four founders — Dastiger Khan (chief executive officer), Harmeet Chauhan (chief financial officer), Rahul Malhotra (chief research officer) and Baltej Sandhu (chief marketing officer) — created the technology to meet the need for better impairment detection and since have built a team of researchers, scientists and law enforcement professionals to bring the idea to market.
The device, named the GX-420, looks like a virtual reality headset with some very high-tech upgrades. The machine tests for all physical indications of impairment, including eye movements, muscle reactions, brain activity, the body’s temperature and heart rate.
“The best part about this is that it’s not drug specific,” said Malhotra. “It doesn’t matter what drug you’re on. They’ll figure it out with urine samples and connect the dots at the station. Our device detects specifically for impairment and can be used to detect someone under the influence of any drug or alcohol. Your body gives you away. It’s like looking at your entire physical chart all in one spot. You can’t fool all five of the tests.”
Cannabis has only been legal for just over a week and already police have been reporting cases of people driving while under the influence of the drug.
Police currently have a roadside test called Drager DrugTest 5000, a saliva based testing system from Germany that can detect seven commonly abused drugs, including cannabis.
There are many drawbacks to the Drager system, however, and the test has come under some scrutiny lately. According to a study done by the Oxford Journal of Analytical Toxicology, failure rates of the device are quite high. There are several other concerns with the system, including its unreliability in cold Canadian temperatures, high false positive/negative rates, inability to work within an hour of consuming any food or drinks, as well as the time it takes to get a result.
It can also detect THC in habitual or medical users up to 100 days after use and could provoke some constitutional challenges. Despite the failure rate, those who fail the test are still required to submit to a further 12-step testing process at the station that includes blood and urine samples before a charge can be laid.
According to a report from May 2018 on cannabis and driving published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, outcomes of oral fluid screening and those from blood tests quite often do not match
The GX-420 does not test for chemicals in the body, but rather employs five different tests that are used by drug recognition evaluators (DRE) at the station. DRE officer training costs the public over $17,000 per trained officer and still relies on a subjective decision by the evaluator. The GX-420, however, is said to put reliable results and date readings into the hands of police within two minutes.
“All the tests the device uses are scientifically proven tests used by DRE officers already,” said Sandhu. “We just automated the process and combined all the tests into one unit. Even if you can cheat one of the tests, the unit has five independent tests and will detect impairment.”
“We are currently working with the Laurier Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience with professor Jeffery Jones. He’s our principal investigator,” said Malhotra. “We are starting trials soon but are still in the prototyping phase, so we haven’t gotten to that point yet, but we have run over 200 ad hoc tests and will be starting with around 80 human trials to make sure it works.”
Although the device is currently in its prototype phase, the company has already set up manufacturing and is nearly ready to start taking orders. Company officials hope to have the unit ready for deployment to police by July 2019. They will also be working with Waterloo Regional Police Service to run a pilot program between December 2018 and February 2019.
The device is just one of many new technologies competing in an estimated $6-billion market. A recent investment from five out of six Dragon’s Den investors has the team feeling confident that their technology will be helping keep Canadian streets safe soon.