New device boosts fight against terrorist bombs
It is an all-too familiar scene. A suspect package in a crowded public place like a shopping mall, a train or an airport. Is it harmless? Or is it a bomb?
The improvised explosive device, or IED, is the weapon of choice in some 60% of terrorist attacks - so easy to carry around and deploy unnoticed. Or noticed only at the very last moment.
In the fightback against the ever-present threat posed by the terrorists who use these deadly devices, security forces require powerful tools and techniques of their own. High on the list of such tools is something which can rapidly, safely, and remotely identify which suspect package is indeed a bomb, and which is just the harmless result of someone’s absent-mindedness.
That ‘something’ may now be close to reality, as a result of a three and a half year research project funded by the European Union. Due to conclude in spring 2012, the OPTIX project, undertaken as part of the EU’s programme of stimulating collaborative research and development across member states, is the most technologically ambitious attempt ever implemented in Europe to make it possible to carry out remote explosives detection.
The EU contributed around 75% of the project’s total 3.3 million euro cost.
Led by Spain’s leading IT company, Indra, and bringing together a range of technical and industrial partners from 6 EU member states, including specialist businesses, research institutes, universities and Spain’s Guardia Civil security force, the OPTIX project aims to provide law enforcement and security agencies with a method to identify explosives at distances of up to 20 meters.
With its ability to detect even microscopic traces of explosives - for example on the outside of a package, or the door of a suspicious car - OPTIX represents a real potential breakthrough: the possibility of carrying out a quick, reliable, remote identification of explosive materials, without the need for dangerous close-quarter investigation
To date, no system in the world has been able to offer sufficient accuracy to be used by the police for this purpose.
The unique feature of the OPTIX device is that it combines three separate advanced technologies to provide different ways of assessing a suspect package. One is the infrared technology that we are all familiar with. The others use lasers to analyse the molecular nature of the target substance and to determine not only if it is explosive, but also, if it is, which explosive it is.
Such technologies have already proved very useful in intercepting counterfeit drugs, analysing their ‘molecular fingerprint’ through the packaging, without the need to open them.
Combining three technologies in one device, while keeping that device portable, was one of the key challenges the OPTIX consortium had to overcome. Its success in this was a key stride towards making the device significantly more reliable and sensitive in detecting explosives than anything that has existed before.
As well as detecting and analysing suspect IEDs, the OPTIX system will also be an important tool in detecting traffickers who may be transporting the ingredients for bombs that are yet to be made, thus choking off the terrorists’ crucial supply chain.
If all goes well with the current OPTIX prototype testing, the way could very soon be clear to a rapid and major step forward in the global fight against terrorism - thanks to an ingenious and innovative act of collaboration between a unique group of dedicated and specialised European partners.