Terrorism and homemade explosive devices are nothing new. They tend to go hand in hand, and are steadily gaining momentum in their deployment (terrorism in one form or another) all over the globe. IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device), pipe bombs, and other homemade incendiaries are showing up in places other than the battlefield, such as movie theaters and college campuses, at such an alarming rate that the DOD (Department of Defense) has taken notice.
The government entity recently awarded Massachusetts-based Bodkin Design and Engineering $890,000 to develop a specialized sensor to detect explosive materials. There are many methods employed today that security personnel have at their disposal to detect explosives, or explosive-related threats, such as dogs, X-ray machines, and spectrometry devices. Biotech firm Incentinal has even done research using trained honey bees, which are monitored by advanced software that looks for "adverse effects" in their behavior when they come in contact with explosive residue (apparently the bees are more sensitive than dogs in terms of smell). None of the current methods of explosive detection employed today, however, have the capability of real-time identification, which can be both aggravating and deadly for those in the military.
The ROE (Rules Of Engagement/s) for combatants deployed in war zones are extremely strict, even for SOF (Special Operations Forces), so much so that it's not uncommon to have JAG (Judge Advocate General or military lawyer) officers accompany soldiers on mission deployments. They're there to make sure soldiers don't engage "suspected" insurgents that could be civilians, even though the individuals are engaged in highly questionable activities, such as placing suspect materials (that can look like garbage or even farm equipment) in areas that soldiers frequently patrol.
When these activities are observed, conventional soldiers will usually call in EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) personnel to examine the material, which, in most cases, ends up being an IED. The bomb squad will then take evidence from the suspect site and use specialized methods to determine the architect of the IED in order to find, and either arrest or eliminate, that individual.
One of these methods is to use explosive chemical analysis kits (such as the Expray Explosive Detection Kit) to take swabs of suspected militants. But these kits can put military personnel in harm's way as the suspect/s can be armed or wearing a suicide vest. These kits, and other subsequent methods, are wholly inefficient when it comes to explosive detection, which is why the company Bodkin is stepping in to develop its homemade explosive device sensor.
According to Bodkin, the sensor will "detect the presence of such threats, classify the nature of the materials, and provide stand-off warning to troops" in an expedient manner. The sensor can be used in various scenarios such as area checkpoints that can detect residue on individuals, equipment, and vehicles, to using the sensor in a hand-held device that can be carried for onsite inspections. The company says the sensor will be adaptable to detect other chemical and biological agents that pose a risk for people in the immediate area.
The sensor itself will include Bodkin's Hyperplexa Array imager, which is a specialized camera that is capable of producing hundreds of colors per-pixel (or spectra) over standard digital cameras. The spectral information is then combined with the spatial information, which results in a 3D "hyperspectral datacube" (two dimensions describe a point in space and the third describes the spectral signature at that point). The imager is able to capture datacubes in a single video frame, as opposed to building the image over time, which is what typical hyperspectral imagers are capable of. According to Bodkin, "this eliminates motion artifacts and increases the signal to noise ratio."
Bodkin will use the imager in conjunction with research provided by the US Army Chemical Research, Development & Engineering Center. The resulting sensor system will work by capturing HD chemical imagery of the scene in question, which is then analyzed by specialized (classified) software that identifies if there are any explosive compounds, and then presents the image in a color-coded display. The company says using the sensor will allow personnel to remain at a safe standoff distance and maintain a defensive posture (take sufficient cover), while scanning for explosive residue.
When Bodkin's sensor will be ready for field use is unknown at this time, but chances are it will be available to military, police, and security agencies in the near future. Not soon enough, in my opinion.