Company Designs Portable X-Ray Scanner

By Christina Munnell
Current X-ray scanners are bulky and immobile, forcing law enforcement officials to inspect suspicious items in hard-to-reach places without efficient equipment. To address this problem, a company has developed a handheld X-ray screening device to improve border, maritime and aviation security.

“The MINI Z screening system can go where others can’t,” said Chuck Dougherty, president and CEO of American Science and Engineering.

The portable X-ray system can squeeze into tiny spaces, giving it more versatility than other scanning devices, Dougherty said. Measuring less than one foot in length, the MINI Z is able to make it into less accessible areas like small cars and speed boats, airplane compartments, or public places where there might be an unattended bag.

It produces images on a Windows 8.1 tablet for immediate detection of drugs, explosives, and other contraband. According to Joe Reiss, product manager of AS&E, other scanning systems can lag, taking at least 10 seconds to generate a picture.

Reiss said MINI Z’s “on-the-spot” image creation was a critical feature, as using slower devices could delay law enforcement from taking immediate action during dangerous situations.

The MINI Z builds off the company’s Z Backscatter Van, a cargo and vehicle screening system. “Z Backscatter screening is really what makes this system so effective,” Reiss said.

While traditional transmission X-rays — such as medical X-rays — pass through objects and display only black images, the device uses a technique called “scattering” to highlight threatening organic materials, Reiss explained. When backscatter X-rays interact with low-density objects like most organic matter, they detect the radiation reflecting from the objects and emit white images, he said.

“Essentially, we took a huge machine and condensed it into a handheld device. There’s a lot of technology in this little box,” Reiss said.

The prototype had been in the works for about three years, Dougherty said. But it was the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that motivated the Massachusetts-based company to finalize the product.

“The Boston bombers had pressure cooker bombs inside of their backpacks, and then left them unattended in a public area,” Dougherty explained. “We want to be able to detect these types of threats immediately and prevent an attack like that from ever happening again.”

During a demonstration, operators scanned a suspicious unattended bag for illegal materials such as drugs, pills, bombs and smuggled currency. The tablet reflected an image of several sticks of dynamite hidden inside the bag after one pass.

According to Reiss, it is more difficult for traditional transmission X-rays to spot these lower-density objects because they pass through them. Traditional X-rays are better able to detect dense metals and steel weaponry. As they are scanned, these items translate on the screen as dark silhouettes, rather than bright figures.

The device maintains the capabilities of a traditional X-ray scanner, so it is able to spot dense objects as well.

“People usually don’t carry large metal objects in their bags,” Reiss said. “The tablet won’t emit them as white images, but will still outline metal weapons in black. The large black spots will be enough of an indication for operators to know something is suspicious.”

An early prototype of the scanner resembled a gun, Dougherty said. But after some test trials, the production team discovered that one handle did not allow operators total control of the device. As a result, the completed machine has one large rectangular handle meant for both hands.

Topics: Homeland Security, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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