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 choise in some 60% of terrorist attacks - so easy to carry around and deploy unnoticed. Or noticed only at the very last moment.
© Fotolia, 2012
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
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 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
To date, no system in the world has been able
to offer sufficient accuracy to be usd 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
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.