Bomb detection software developed by Edinburgh researchers

New software that can detect complex mixtures of dangerous chemicals potentially used in bomb-making has been developed by researchers in Edinburgh.

Scientists have pioneered a new chemical substance analysis software technique that could play a significant role in boosting current homeland security measures and illicit substance detection.

Able to analyse mixtures of chemicals

The new software could be integrated within handheld scanners used by security services to detect combinations of substances that might be used in explosives.

The development is a huge breakthrough as previously detectors, like the widely used Raman scanners, were only able to pick up ‘single’ chemicals in tests, not mixtures.

Mike Davies, Professor of Signal and Image Processing at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, which worked in conjunction with UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), said: “The software is designed to perform a complex analysis of the substance under test. While existing handheld Raman devices are able to compare the test substance with a library of candidate chemicals they are unable to identify scenarios where there are a complicated mixture of chemicals.

Military and civilian application

“For example this might be the case where a household chemical is mixed with something else in order to facilitate an explosive. However that is by no means the only application. It can also be used to detect small qualities of hazardous materials in either military or civilian contexts, used to identify counterfeit drugs or detect the purity of chemicals in for example industrial quality control.”

The new functionality is “computationally efficient enough” to be implemented on hand-held Raman spectrometers, providing a portable, sensitive, non-invasive approach for chemical substance analysis.

Bomb detection software has commercial viability

The University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation arm, Edinburgh Research & Innovation (ERI), is now seeking to license the technology to industry partners who wish to deploy it as part of a commercial hardware solution.

The software is available in a range of languages including C and Java for possible implementation on android based devices.

Some companies are looking at building such devices around a mobile phone base and others are using the computational power of a mobile phone as the brains for the device (e.g. through a bluetooth), said Professor Davies.

Rhea Clewes, Senior Scientist in Chemical Sensing, Dstl, added: “This novel software will allow us to accurately identify small amounts of hazardous chemicals much more quickly than before. This technology agnostic development allows a range of different signals to be separated, including analytical approaches beyond Raman spectroscopy.

“Dstl is proud to see that ‘outcomes’ from the University Defence Research Collaboration in Signal Programming, jointly funded by Dstl and EPSRC, is producing output of immediate benefit to defence and homeland security.”


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