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Homeland Security

Innovative ideas for explosives detection technology

The UK’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) has launched a competition to fund new technologies to detect explosives in electronic devices, aimed primarily at airport security screening. Adele Berti reports from a recent event in London where the most innovative ideas were showcased.

In March 2017, the UK Government introduced a ban that prevented travellers from some major UK-bound airports in the Middle East and North Africa from carrying large electronic devices in the aircraft cabin. As part of the move, passengers flying from certain airports in Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were prohibited from carrying phones, laptops and tablets, among others, as a measure against potential terrorist threats.

While the ban was removed in August 2018, during its year in place concerns arose about the impact this imposition could have on those who travel for personal and, especially, business purposes.

This prompted the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) – a branch of the Ministry of Defence’s Science and Technology Laboratory responsible for funding innovations in the defence and security sectors – to launch a competition titled “Finding explosives hidden in electrical items”.

The initiative invited companies from around the world to develop new systems capable of detecting explosives in electrical devices during airports’ security checks or inside the cabin. It is part of a wider programme called Future Aviation Security Solutions (FASS) organised by the UK’s Home Office and Department for Transport.

Funding new ideas for quick explosives detection

The competition was launched late last year and at the time of writing is still in its early stages. Most of the participating companies started with low technology readiness level solutions, a measure which indicates the maturity of the product. Each competing entity will be able to use £1.5m to develop its project over three phases.

With their projects still in their infancy, the majority of the companies need financial support to build a prototype and bring their technologies to life. An event hosted by DASA and FASS in late September in London gave them the opportunity to present their products and attract new investors.

While the technologies used for the different products vary significantly, the common goal remains to find a quick, affordable and straightforward solution capable of recognising the presence of an explosive without affecting customer service.

Despite being in an early phase, the solutions presented during the demonstration day organised by DASA have the potential to bring significant contributions to the field of checkpoint security.

The importance of academic research

An ever-growing level of excellence in academic research in the UK has meant that several universities from across the country were invited to the event to present their products.

A team from Cranfield University introduced a system capable of detecting explosives within electronic devices through portable x-ray scattering. Representing the university at the conference, Professor Keith Rogers said: “Our concept is based on a very simple X-ray scanning system which exploits X-ray scattering as opposed to direct imaging. We can also demonstrate a relatively high sensitivity to a small amount of explosive, at relatively high speed, low power and low watt, automation and low cost.”

One of the most interesting proposals was brought forward by the University of East Anglia, where a team of researchers came up with the idea of using 3D scanners to detect explosives and other objects.

“We can also demonstrate a relatively high sensitivity to a small amount of explosive, at relatively high speed, low power… and low cost.”

The only project of this kind presented at the demonstration day, Professor Richard Harvey explained the technology saying: “You don't have to unpack your bag for 3D scanners, so one of the questions we've been looking at is: What is actually the advantage of 3D scanning in terms of detection of objects? We can answer that question, because if we have 3D data and, at our starting point, we had a dataset of 3D data, you can project that data into 2D and then you can see what the effect is of 2D compared to 3D.”

The main focus of Harvey’s team is testing how 3D scanning can combine with segmentation technology, which he believes is going to be very important for 3D. “There are very good technical reasons why this is a special challenge for some deep learning systems,” he added.

Finally, researchers from Durham University travelled to London in search of investors for their automated in-situ screening technology and alarm resolution solutions.

Throughout the developing process, Professor Toby Breckon explained, the team looked at how to conduct “the next generation of anomaly protection algorithms, looking particularly at in-situ screening of varied electrical items”. However, he added that the team has not particularly focused on detecting explosives, but rather on finding abnormalities in all electrical items.

Research teams and start-ups showcase their ideas

As well as its individual project, Durham University also collaborated with Micro-X, an Australian company that designs and manufactures X-ray imaging systems for medical and security applications. Micro-X, which also attended the event, has developed a portable X-ray backscattering imaging system able to provide high-resolution images of devices.

Finnish start-up Karsa also flew to London to offer its approach to airport security scans and presented an automated explosives vapour detector, a machine capable of automatically screening any vapours and vapours coming off an object. According to chief product officer Aleksei Shcherbinin, the product can also “detect other chemical signatures or anything that exists in a molecular form".

The need for the system to be as convenient as possible for operators was a common denominator throughout the event, but NWPRO’s human resources manager Andrew Simmons made it a core characteristic of his company’s Deeper Scan technology.

“The technology can be used by airport security personnel as well as converted into a conventional X-ray machine or other technology for integration.”

“The Deeper Scan project uses a state-of-the-art learning and detecting analysis technique to provide ultimate threat detection,” he explained. “The primary scanning process presents an operator with a lot of problems, but Deeper Scan uses real-time comparison to divide and scan any similar devices. The system sees if these contained modifications are identifiable at any time or effort required by an operator.”

He also claimed that the technology can be used by airport security personnel as well as converted into a conventional X-ray machine or other technology for integration. As he put it: “Deeper Scan will have a significant importance for security and user experience with increased detection but also will improve the gate significant chain and operator rotation.”

A total of 15 contenders participated in the demonstration event. For the next stage, each will develop a prototype of their solution and carry out the necessary testing to prove their concepts. This phase is expected to be complete by the end of 2019.