Spotting carboot bombers

Improvised explosive devices are the weapon of choice for suicide bombers and have been a major cause of military and civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world. Now, a group in engineering at the University of Michigan have developed a novel approach to detection of such devices that might allow security forces to intervene in a situation before a device is detected.

A team of undergraduate students at Michigan have developed a palm-sized metal detector based on a magnetometer explains team member Ashwin Lalendran who graduated in May 2009.

The device could be hidden in rubbish bins, under tables or in flowerpots, that are linked together using a wireless sensor network connected to a peripatetic command centre. The inexpensive low-power devices have a long transmission range and outperform all other devices on the market according to Nilton Renno, the team’s supervisor.

“We built it entirely in-house – the hardware and the software,”
explains Lalendran. “Our sensors are small, flexible to deploy, inexpensive and scalable. It’s extremely novel technology.”

The technology has already earned recognition with the Michigan team recently winning a competition sponsored by the US Air Force in conjunction with Ohio State University. The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and other bases across the US sponsor similar contests on a regular basis with the aim of getting a rapid technological reaction to ongoing issues that can be highly innovative.

The team has tested its system in Dayton, Ohio, at a mock outdoor sale event – a simulated carboot sale – secreting detectors across the site.
The organisers then hid simulated explosive devices among the crowd in backpacks and handbags and among the goods “on sale”.

“We had an excellent turnout in technology,” Tenning said. “Regardless of the competition results, often successful ideas from each student team can be combined into a product which is then realized for Department of Defence use in the future.”

Their success demonstrated sound engineering skills and a lot of imagination to the solution of an extremely difficult real-world problem, said Bruce Block, an engineer in the Space Physics Research Laboratory, who worked with the team. He adds that, “they worked well together and never gave up when the going got rough.” The students will continue to work on this project through the summer.

Team member Michael Shin discussing the development of a wireless network for detecting suicide bombers (Credit: UMich)

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Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.