Military Infrared Sensor That Ferrets Out Suicide Vests Offered to Local Law Enforcement

By Stew Magnuson
A sensor used in battle zones that can detect explosives and weapons hidden under clothing at long distances is now being marketed domestically.

Thermal Matrix USA sees its Access Counter IED Technology system as one answer to the long-standing problem of how to detect a suicide bomber before he reaches a secure area.

The product originated in 2005 as a “system of systems” that used long-, mid- and short-wave infrared, millimeter wave, terahertz and ultraviolet spectrums to create a complete picture of what subjects were concealing underneath their clothes. The Department of Homeland Security ran operational tests of the system, called the Gauntlet, and it worked well, but it was not portable, and took a long time to set up, said Bill Reinpoldt, the company’s director of technology.

“It took a few guys and truck or two to move the system around. It was big and unwieldy,” he said.

The company decided that the three infrared waves were doing the bulk of the work. The other spectrums were adding value but contributing to the complexity. It scrapped the others and stuck with a highly sensitive infrared device.

Meanwhile, privacy concerns emerged about the millimeter wave technology, which exposes human anatomy in the view screens. Also, infrared does not project any radiation like some of the Transportation Security Administration screening devices at airports, he added.

Infrared does not see through clothing. Bodies give off heat signatures, and any object between the skin and the sensor absorbs that heat. The concealed object casts a “shadow,” which shows up on the monitor in fine detail. These objects might be suicide bomb vests, guns, knives, or any other object. There is no need to send subjects through a checkpoint. It can look at crowds of pedestrians walking five-abreast, Reinpoldt said.

The infrared-only version allowed the system to fit in a rucksack and be set up within “seven minutes instead of hours,” he said.

The anomalies don’t have to be metal. They can be plastic or liquid, he said.

“You can not only see a gun, but which way the gun is pointed, the trigger, the trigger guards, the hammer, and whether it is cocked or not,” he said.

Since it is a military-based technology and its specifications are classified, Reinpoldt could not disclose the sensor’s range, but putting it in football terms, it has no problem sensing a bomb vest from “end zone to end zone,” he said.

The sensor’s primary customers have been the U.S. Army and several federal agencies that he could not disclose. Thermal Matrix is now hoping to sell the devices to state and local police agencies.

Price is an issue when marketing such technology to cash-strapped law enforcement agencies, he acknowledged. A unit is less expensive than TSA screening devices, which run about $130,000, he said. The company is working to drive the price down, he added.

Topics: Homeland Security, Air Transportation

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